Varlam, the despotic mayor of a small town, dies. After his funeral, his body is repeatedly unearthed and buried again. Through flashbacks and dreamlike scenes, we witness his rise, power and ambiguities.
The day after the funeral of Varlam Aravidze, the mayor of a small Georgian town, his corpse turns up in his son's garden and is secretly reburied. But the corpse keeps returning, and the police eventually capture a local woman, who is accused of digging it up. She says that Varlam should never be laid to rest because he was responsible for a Stalin-like reign of terror that led to the disappearance of many of her friends...Written by
Michael Brooke <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Varlam Aravidze's appearance is made of a mix of different despots: Beria (pince-nez glasses), Stalin (haircut), Hitler (moustache), Mussolini (dark shirt, braces). See more »
After Varlam's corpse has been reburied the second time, an iron cage is placed over his grave to protect it from further intrusion. But as the perpetrator starts to exhume him for the third time, there is no cage. See more »
The movie starts with a newspaper obituary recording the death of Varlam Aravidze, the mayor of a town in Georgia. We're then shown what has happened in the town in the past when Varlam was mayor. He's nominally a communist type, however it's made pretty clear that his stripes, and the stripes of all Stalinists, are feudal. This is shown, for example, by having the police of the town dressed as mediaeval knights. It's an idea explored in Iosseliani's Brigands too, that Russian rulers have been a succession of crazed autocratic knaves.
At one point in the film Varlam plaintively quotes from Shakespeare's sonnet 66:
Tired with all these, for restful death I cry, As, to behold desert a beggar born, And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity, And purest faith unhappily forsworn, And gilded honour shamefully misplaced, And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted, And right perfection wrongfully disgraced, And strength by limping sway disabled, And art made tongue-tied by authority, And folly doctor-like controlling skill, And simple truth miscall'd simplicity, And captive good attending captain ill: Tired with all these, from these would I be gone, Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
Which is a harangue against everything he stands for. He's a man who has knowingly chosen to do wrong, a comedian who has turned his fiefdom into a comedy of terror. At one point he arranges for his son to jump out of a second story window to shock his captive audience, but in fact the boy is caught below. He surrounds himself with illiterate sycophants whom he brings into and out of favour arbitrarily, arranges for people to be arrested and benevolently releases them when complaints are made. In the end however he's merely a snake playing with its live food before devouring.
Varlam arranges for people to be exiled, presumably to Siberia although we're not told. One day a shipment of logs arrives on the outskirts of town. They have been logged by the kidnapped men of the town. Each survivor has carved their name into the end of the timber. Women from the town trudge around the muddy lumberyard looking for their husbands' names, looking for proof of life for men denied the right of correspondence. This is the most powerful scene in my opinion.
There are also a number of dream scenes and very surreal scenes that are very appealing in their artistry, which I leave the reader to discover for themselves.
Varlam is, as has been pointed out, a concoction of dictators (superficially containing elements of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin), but may well, in more concrete terms be based on a real life figure, Georgian-born Lavrentiy Beria, a man more unpleasant than the imaginations of most can conjure up. He was Stalin's chief murderer, a sexual sadist who performed unimaginable feats of depravity, he also briefly participated in the running of Russia as part of a "troika" after Stalin's death. The film does not dwell on the huge depths of his depravities, as the acts he performed are unspeakable and unfilmable. The film is a quiet but firm indictment however of Stalinist politics, of the manipulation and double-think and an ode to Georgian culture.
The purpose of the film is to not let Beria, or more generally the authoritarians of the time, rest in peace; to act as testament to the cruel depravities of the Stalinist era.
In my opinion it's absolutely unmissable.
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