On the outskirts of Tbilisi there is a enormous prison. It hovers over those who come to visit and the first images of Tinatin Kajrishvili‘s Brides are of this approach. Women stand on below, looking up at this aging monolith while they wait to be allowed inside. It is an eternal sight that echoes the women of Aci Trezza watching the sea for the return of their sons and husbands in the Neorealist classic La Terra Trema, though here cinematographer Goga Devadiani uses a more intimate framing. Grandeur can be found in the building itself, an imposition of state power. Its walls are so oppressive and its hallways so drab that a viewer unfamiliar with the nation of Georgia might mistake much of this film to be a Soviet-era period piece rather than a contemporary narrative.
But back to those women. One of them is Nutsa (Mari Kitia), a young mother whose long-time partner is being held inside. She and those standing by her have visited as a result of a newly changed policy: the inmates are now allowed to receive visitors, but only legally recognized family. Nutsa and Goga (Giorgi Maskharashvili) have two children but no marriage license. The prison has granted this small group, including an elderly woman and a terrified teenager, the right to a brisk wedding inside the prison walls in order to cement future visitation rights.
This opening sequence is among the richest of the year in cinema so far. The camera is bustled about with the characters, bluntly directed through this enormous physical manifestation of government bureaucracy. Emotions bubble up only to be quickly suppressed, the first evidence of the psychological roller coaster that is the life of a family caught up in the penal system. Brides continues in this vein even as it leaves the penitentiary itself, following Nutsa’s efforts to find balance. Goga’s captivity allows her a few different ways of life, though none of them are particularly desirable. In one moment, she decides to try bribing him out early. At the same time, she considers an affair or another means of moving on.
Throughout, the one constant is the strength of Kitia’s performance. Nutsa is aloof but never distant, guarded but never completely opaque. Aside from her striking visual resemblance of Keira Knightley, Kitia offers a performance surprisingly akin to the British actress’s stellar turn as Anna Karenina. Her chill is glacial rather than frigid, signifying immense emotional and psychological depth. Another actress might make her often rapidly changing decisions seem erratic, but Kitia expertly captures the stoicism required to remain sane in a tenuous situation.
Yet if there is a flaw to be found in this film, it is in that fragility. The scenes at the prison are stark, powerful and riveting. Those outside, following Nutsa as she alternates between loyalty and independence, lack the same aesthetic vision. A direct reference to Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism, a violent tale of marital honor and double-suicide, seems out of place in the film’s more mundane sequences. Kajrishvili, perhaps aware of this, chooses to end with another perfectly choreographed sequence within the walls of the penitentiary. The bookends, from the poetic opening shots to the final uncertain and frenzied images, are noticeably stronger than the film’s interior. Much as it is cliche to say, Brides is very much the thrilling debut, with elements of brilliance that stand out in a tentative first screenplay.
The Upside: Brides is a sometimes stunning glimpse into the Georgian penal system, led by one of the best performances of the year so far.
The Downside: The more quotidian moments in the screenplay, set far from the towering prison, don’t quite keep up with the aesthetic and emotional ambition of the opening and closing sequences.
On the Side: Director Tinatin Kajrishvili was herself married in a prison and began working on the script for Brides while her husband was still inside.