In Bloom

September 27, 2014
Mariam Bokeria & Lika Babluani 'In Bloom' (2014)
Mariam Bokeria & Lika Babluani 'In Bloom' (2014)

Family life takes on a different tone in Georgia in the early 1990s, a country freshly separated from the Soviet Union but immersed in a new civil war. In Bloom, co-directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, is set in the capital, Tbilisi, but everyone is affected by the proximity of violence, by the air of sadness and uncertainty that characterises life in the reborn republic.

The film focuses on two 14-year old girls, Eka and Natia, and what it means to reach adulthood in a place where everyday life is so harsh. The two non-professional leads, Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria, give impressive, completely natural performances in roles that contain long takes and subtle psychology.

The central character is Eka, who is bookish and introspective. She lives with her mother and her elder sister – a would-be party girl – in an apartment haunted by their absent father, in prison for an unspecified crime. Eka is a complex character – melancholy, deep and determined. She knows how to keep a straight face, but one can feel the emotions raging beneath the mask.

Natia is an extrovert: an assertive personality, swiftly becoming aware of the magnetism she exerts on the opposite sex. Her home life is a disaster, riven by constant violent quarrels between her mother and her drunken father, with contributions by her grandmother and little brother.

At school the teacher abuses and humiliates the students, who run wild at every opportunity. When the girls go to buy bread they join a jostling, noisy queue of people who squabble over limited supplies. Eka takes a stoic approach to the trials of life, while Natia feels one has to fight or be conquered.

Natia already has two suitors – Lado, who gives her a gun to protect herself before he goes on a trip; and Kote, a local delinquent who wants to marry her as soon as possible. If persuasion fails, he is willing to employ more extreme tactics.

The gun becomes a central source of tension, although the role it eventually plays is not at all predictable. Neither could one predict that the brooding Eka will dance in front of a crowd at her friend’s wedding reception – another surprise in a story that keeps us guessing. The script is based on Nana Ekvtimishvili’s memories of her own teenage years in Georgia, and feels disturbingly true-to-life.

The title refers not only to Natia and Eka, coming into the bloom of womanhood, but also to Georgia itself, emerging from the former USSR. There’s more than a touch of irony in both cases. The girls are growing up in an aggressively masculine society in which women are treated as a husband’s private property. No matter how radiantly a girl ‘blooms’, her opportunities are severely constrained.

As for Georgia, it has escaped the yoke of the Kremlin only to be locked into a bloody struggle with breakaway states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When so many men are away fighting, the atmosphere of war-time violence infects the behaviour of the schoolchildren and street gangs. The nation and its young men are sharing the hormonal upheavals of puberty.

It would have been easy to make this film a dark, depressing tale, but Ekvtimishvili and Gross never allow the characters to sink into despair. The saving grace is the buoyant energy of a teenage cast who act in ways that are largely identical to their peers in more peaceful and prosperous societies. Regardless of war and poverty, teenagehood is a universal state.

Viewers will be impressed by the lead characters’ resilience – their unwillingness to be bowed down by the narrowness of provincial life. It’s a trait one finds in many of the best films from the so-called ‘emerging world’. Think, for instance, of Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda. The characters in these movies have been born into a society with a low threshold of expectation, meaning that every small step forward is a reason to feel positive. It was the same with the bittersweet Georgian film, Blind Dates, shown at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.

The ability to take strength from small triumphs makes for an interesting comparison with Maggie and Milo in The Skeleton Twins, whose childhood aspirations have declined into a neurotic preoccupation with failure. When the circumstances of life are too comfortable, we tend to make our own disasters, but for those whose lives are spent in war-torn, impoverished Georgia feeling sorry for oneself is not an option.

In Bloom
Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross
Written by Nana Ekvtimishvili
Starring Lika Babluani, Mariam Bokeria, Zurab Gogaladze, Data Zakareishvili, Ana Nijaradze
Georgia/Germany/France, rated M 15+, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 27th September, 2014.