Georgian films and movies set in the Caucasus Mountain villages of the former Soviet Republic are gaining prominence in the festival circuits. Gritty coming-of-age tale “In Bloom” (2013), darkly humorous drama “Street Days” (2010) and comedy drama “Blind Dates” (2013) are few movies that screened across various film festivals. George Ovashvili’s Austere drama “Corn Island” (2014) seems to be yet another milestone in Georgian cinema. Similar to the recent Oscar nominated Estonian film “Tangerines”, “Corn Island” too is set in the 90’s (after the collapse of Soviet Union), during the conflict between Georgian and breakaway republic of Abkhazia. But “Corn Island” isn’t a story of awakening humanity at the face of war (like “Tangerines”). It is rather a man vs nature kind of film, where political turmoil adds more to the characters’ psychological afflictions.
“Corn Island” could be deemed as a grand feat of film-making, although the plot is very simple. The narrative is fully reliant on the pastoral images since there might be only a dozen lines of dialogues in the movie. The stark and beautiful images of the Ovasvili’s concocted island setting would be best appreciated by cinephiles who admire masters like Robert Bresson, Terrence Malick and Herzog. The opening title of the film explains how the flood that rises from Caucasus Mountains and rushes into Enguri River forms small islands that are cultivated by local farmers for corn. The cultivation process starts in between spring and fall, and the farmers could survive the winter only through the yield of corn.
On one foggy morning, an old Abkhazian man (Ylias Salman) steps into a little almond-shaped island on the Enguri River, situated in the natural border separating Georgia from the Republic of Abkhazia. The old man is elated like an explorer finding a new land, but then goes about his work. He feels the soil and sets up tattered boards for a makeshift shelter. In the evening, he gets back in the boat and goes to him home. But, the director never shows us what his familial background is or what kind of man he is. Although as the film progresses with few words, we get an idea about his honorable, rugged-faced farmer. Few days later, the old farmer brings his teenage granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvilli). She has a doll for a playmate, which also turns into a symbol for her transitioning phase between childhood and adulthood. The girl works wordlessly with her grandfather in building the wooden shack.
Meanwhile, the battle between Georgian soldiers and Abkhazian, Russian soldiers is ensuing in the mainland. The duo in the island often hears gunshots and cautiously watches over the armed soldiers, patrolling the river. Soon, the old man and the girl start the corn cultivation process and at a time when the corns have grown above a man’s shoulder height, the two islanders find a wounded Georgian soldier. As expected, the Abkhazian farmer treats the soldier and a tragedy strikes. But, the striking aspect is the way the tragedy is presented, without resorting to overblown melodramas.
The plot of “Corn Island”, especially the wounded soldier aspect would immediately make us draw comparison with the Oscar-nominated “Tangerines”. Both the films possess themes that aren’t pertained to the politics & conflicts Caucasus mountain range. Nevertheless, both the films differ in its choice of universal themes. While “Tangerines” made an ecumenical & potent anti-war statement, “Corn Island” is concerned about the cyclic nature of Mother Nature, where creation & destruction occurs in equal proportions. The unspoken sexual friction and the tough, trouble-making soldiers present a threat to the island’s peace, but these human conditions seems trifling infront of the plans nature has for us.
Andrey Zvygintsev’s “Leviathan” (2014) made a more subtle allusion about the petty human activities, driven by lust & greed, against a timeless backdrop. The austere tradition in which the narration unfolds made me remember Kaneto Shindo’s classic movie “The Naked Island” (1960). This Japanese film also conveyed the efforts to raise a crop in impractical landscape, wrestling against unforgiving & untameable nature. The location, sparse dialogues and some of Ovashvili’s themes also reminds us of Kim Ki-Duk’s “The Bow” (Hwal, 2007). Director Ovashvili, although has devised a simple film with ordinary characters and expected events, the logistics of shooting has been anything but simple (the crew built artificial island from scratch). The attention to detail provided here would rival with any of the complicated American production.
The wordless performances from the central duo (especially the new girl Mariam) is spectacular. The granddaughter and the old farmer have perfectly channeled their repressed emotions and inner thoughts through subtle facial expressions. I liked the way the Georgian soldier’s role was characterized and the actor, who played the role (Irakali Samushia). It is the sort of character that would bring home loud messages, unbridled sentimentality. But, since language barrier plays a vital role here, the maudlin elements stay away. The teenage crush, the grandfather’s ensuing reaction and the soldiers wounded look conveyed a lot more than what dialogues could have implied.
“Corn Island” (100 minutes) is one of the perfect examples of minimalist art. The uncomplicated storyline provides both an engrossing sensory pleasure and impregnable emotional pay-off.