Monday, March 11, 2019

Rezo: An Animated Portrait of the Georgian Artist

Rezo Gabriadze was an accomplished screenwriter, whose films included the international cult hit, Kin-Dza-Dza!, but he refocused his creative energies into marionette theater, because he experienced far less state interference there. The puppeteer-illustrator-filmmaker explains how the lean, difficult years of his youth shaped him as an artist and a human being, through his own words and images, in his son Leo Gabriadze’s animated documentary, Rezo, which opens this Wednesday in New York, at Film Forum.

As a young boy in Kutaisi, Gabriadze was so weak and scrawny, everyone picked on him. His only friend in town was Ippolit, a rat living in the library, with whom he shared the books. He read the pages and Ippolit chewed the covers—or so Gabriadze remembers. He is indeed just as apt to pass off his flights of fantasy as gospel events, but that is all part of the charm of the film and its subject.

Although Gabriadze was a city kid, his most formative memories are of his visit to his grandparents’ hardscrabble farms, during summers and whenever war started advancing too close to home. They were not talkative (especially not his gruff grandfather), but the animals and natural environment fired the lad’s imagination. He was also deeply affected by the friendship he found with a German POW who had been assigned to his grandparents as a free laborer. In fact, the nameless German (who clearly looks like one of the elite Junkers) emerges as one of the richest and most intriguing figures in Gabriadze’s tale (or in just about any recent animated film, for that matter).

Although Marc Chagall was fiftysome years older than Gabriadze (and Belarusian Jewish), Rezo is probably the closest thing to what Chagall might have done as an animator filmmaker, had he had the opportunity and inclination. We can definitely see Russian-Soviet militarism encroaching on the old traditional world—and yes, there are cows in Rezo. In what is probably the film’s trippiest sequence, Gabriadze conveys what it was like to grow up in the midst of the omnipresent Soviet propaganda.

This is also an absolutely charming film. The senior Gabriadze, who appears in live on-camera interludes, still has a twinkle in his eye. He is a marvelously engaging storyteller, even via subtitles. His sketches and paintings perfectly evoke a sense of how harsh those times could be, as well as nostalgia for their simplicity. Those who admire Gabriadze’s work might be surprised how little time is devoted to his professional career, but it might perfect sense from a psycho-analyst’s perspective.

Regardless, Rezo is a wonderfully sly and bittersweet oral history from a great Georgian artist. It also proves how animation can be the perfect vehicle for serious filmmaking. Frankly, this is probably the only way to do Gabriadze’s story justice, because he clearly remembers in very animated terms. Produced by epic filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (Ben-Hur, Day Watch), Rezo happens to run a fleeting sixty-five-minutes, so Film Forum has paired it up with Yuri Norstein’s classic 1979 animated short Tale of Tales. Highly recommended, both for animation fans (of all but the youngest ages) and patrons of Russian and Caucasian culture, Rezo opens this Wednesday (3/13), at Film Forum.