The San Francisco International Film Festival is offering a rare treat this year with its presentation of Otar Iosseliani's latest film, Gardens in Autumn, and Julie Bertuccelli's documentary about Iosseliani, Otar Iosseliani, The Whistling Blackbird. The director of 2003's Since Otar Left, Bertuccelli has worked as Iosseliani's assistant director, so her portrait goes well beyond a primer on his body of work, which began in Soviet Georgia in the late '50s and continued through his relocation to France in 1982.
After a shaky beginning that has Iosseliani quoting Aleksandr Pushkin at length without translation, the doc moves quickly into the meat and potatoes of Gardens in Autumn's construction, such as a poetic demonstration of the transition from storyboarding to shooting. The sisterly abuse Iosseliani endures from his producer, though, is probably the best stuff in the film ("You took that idea from another screenplay"; "You're not Rivette! Cut it down!"; "This ending is stupid"). Bertuccelli's document of the bumpy road to a final product is a fascinating counterpoint to the sensuous languor of Iosseliani's film.
Gardens in Autumn starts as unpromisingly as the doc, as a broadly Bunuelian satire of the bourgeoisie (a comic wife buys expensive junk, a bureaucrat quietly smokes a cigarette as a labor demonstration swells), but the story almost immediately makes a welcome 180-degree turn. As if our hero Vincent (Severin Blanchet) can sense the satire in progress, he abruptly resigns his post as a government minister and returns to the town of his youth, where his mother (Michel Piccoli, a fixture in Luis Bunuel's French work, in convincing drag) holds court in an extravagant mansion and drunken clergymen with frat boy temperaments roam the streets. The film fans out into a thinly plotted waltz through the good life, where even the occasional bursts of violence look like they might be fun. It's the type of film in which a man can shrug off the squatter inundation of his apartment and move into the secret back room behind the bookcase.
The critic J. Hoberman described one of Iosseliani's recent ensemble films somewhat dismissively as a "genteel circus," but the tag can also serve as an affectionate characterization of his best work. His latest exercise in modulated hedonism may not have much to say on the politics of happiness, but sometimes that can be a blessing. (Jason Shamai)
GARDENS IN AUTUMN (Otar Iosseliani, France/Russia/Italy, 2006). Sun/29, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 6, 8 p.m., Kabuki; May 8, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki
OTAR IOSSELIANI, THE WHISTLING BLACKBIRD (Julie Bertuccelli, France, 2006). Fri/27, 4 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 3, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki; May 9, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki