The official Georgian Oscar contender is a semi-autobiographical drama about families uprooted and disoriented by war.
A ghost story without any ghosts, House of Others is a haunting family drama that boldly invokes the Old Masters of art house cinema, notably Tarkovsky and Bergman. A strikingly confident debut from young writer-director Rusudan Glurdjidze, Georgia’s official entry in the Oscar race for best foreign language film adds to the growing canon of world-class features coming out of the former Soviet republic, building on the high standards set by recent festival prize-winners like In Bloom, Blind Dates and Corn Island.
Though seemingly stranded in time and place, the setting is a remote border region of Georgia in the early nineties, soon after a disastrous civil war against the breakaway region of Abkhazia. But this wider context is largely irrelevant to non-locals, except as a loose explanation for the gathering of dislocated characters onscreen.
Drawing on real events from her childhood, Glurdjidze wreaths this intimate story in a dreamlike ambience that borders on magical realism at times. Slow and ruminative and novelistic in texture, House of Others is vintage film festival fare, though rave reviews and Oscar-linked prestige could boost its chances of niche theatrical interest.
It’s a rainy night in Georgia. Refugees from the war-torn city, Astamur (Zurab Magalashvili) and Liza (Olga Dykhovichnaya) arrive with their two young children in a mist-shrouded mountain valley. Here they are allocated a crumbling villa by Ginger (Malxaz Gorbenadze), the thuggish paramilitary godfather with authority over the region. Abandoned in haste by their former owners, these empty houses are now being gradually re-occupied by families from the winning side in the conflict.
As Liza and Astamur struggle to settle in a house still half-haunted by its previous tenants and their possessions, the nearest neighbors eye them suspiciously through a spyglass. The sternly androgynous Ira (Salome Demuria), a spiky eccentric with a fondness for guns and explosives, is instantly wary. But her widowed sister Azida (Ia Sukhitashvili) and niece Nata (Ekaterine Japaridze) are more welcoming. These three women appear to have stepped straight out of a 19th century Chekhov play, which may be a deliberate allusion by Glurdjidze.
In terms of plot, House of Others pretty much ends there. Before long, bored teenager Nata strikes up a teasing friendship with the newly arrived boy next door, Leo (Sandro Khundadze). Minor tensions and flirtations arise between the two families and their military minders, with outdoor sex and sporadic gunfire all part of the mix. Simmering with latent rage, the sexually ambivalent Ira is a highly intriguing character, and more of her backstory would have been welcome.
But Glurdjidze and her Spanish cinematographer Gorka Gomez Andreus are much more interested in creating atmospheric tableaux than conventional narrative. Using elegant still-life compositions and long, measured, gliding pans, they assemble a painterly gallery of sumptuous visuals in the old-school Academy ratio. The recurring motif of rain-streaked windows is pure Tarkovsky, while the shadowy candlelit interiors could almost be Rembrandt canvases.
House of Others is an unashamedly arty experience in the grand auteur tradition. These anguished protagonists all have Slavic melancholy ingrained in their souls, so their dialogue is peppered with portentous lines that often teeter close to self-parody: “What an exhausting silence,” one sighs.
“I don’t understand where I am, why and what for,” another agonizes, channeling how much of the audience feel. Glurdjidze has made an uncompromising debut, but she has also made an exquisitely beautiful visual poem that bodes well for the continuing rude health of Georgian cinema.