Birds Eye View 2014 opens with the eagerly anticipated UK premiere of In Bloom, which has already won a string of awards worldwide. Manish Agarwal gives his thoughts on this compelling, gritty and beautiful film…
Based on the memories of writer and debut director Nana Ekvtimishvili, this absolute gem is set in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1992. The former Soviet republic declared independence the previous year. Civil war looms. Such a specific time and location is evoked quickly, in passing fragments. We hear bellicose radio DJs calling for citizens to be armed, and dinner table conversations about hot-headed lads running away to fight, then getting themselves killed. Armed thugs push to the front of a fractious breadline, while the television reports bomb blasts in the breakaway Abkhazia region However, what makes this feature so universally resonant is its intimate central narrative about female friendship and rites of passage – a very personal tale unfolding against a broader political backdrop.
Played to perfection by newcomers Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria, Eka and Natia are 14-year-old best friends and a study in contrasts. Quiet and watchful, Eka lives in a relatively spacious apartment with lots of books, a loving (if subdued) mother and popular older sister. There’s a void where her father should be, his absence explained in stages as the picture unfolds. Walking though the neighbourhood with loaves from the breadline, Eka faces down a pair of knife-wielding bully boys with a minimum of fuss. They knock one loaf into the mud. She picks it up, hurries back home and cuts off the spoiled section. Life goes on.
Natia has to endure a cramped abode wracked by violent outbursts from her alcoholic dad towards long-suffering mum, plus a relentlessly opinionated grandmother and boisterous kid brother. Away from this maelstrom she’s outgoing and the object of much unwanted male attention. The one guy Natia does like, soft-spoken Lado (Data Zakareishvili), has to go to Moscow to stay with his uncle. Before departing he gives her a present, in romantic ‘close your eyes’ style. It’s a gun. For protection, he says, showing her how to load it.
The matter-of-fact tenderness with which Lado’s gift is unveiled, plus the affection and understanding with which it’s received, show us how skewed this particular society has become. The weapon symbolizes the wider conflict, bestowing power and posing a threat as it changes hands throughout the movie. The characters can choose to wield it or not; the viewer is kept guessing in masterfully controlled fashion.
Even without the wartime context, Georgia in the early ’90s doesn’t seem like the best place to be a teenage girl, as the apparently tolerated practice of bride kidnapping impacts on our protagonists. What follows is an extraordinary wedding sequence, in which the men’s drunken chauvinism gives way to a young woman performing a traditional folk dance. The other guests applaud wildly, but the look on her face is pure defiance, raging against a grotesque celebration.
In Bloom presents moments of enthralling drama without signposting them, Ekvtimishvili and her German co-director Simon Groß (who previously helmed 2007’s Fata Morgana) subtly ratcheting up the tension through judicious use of long takes. When the violence that lurks at the edge of every frame finally arrives centre stage, it’s all the more effective for being understated. And though the film’s title takes on a painfully ironic aspect, its resolution is wholly believable, refusing easy catharsis while offering an essential glimmer of hope.