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by Jay Seaver

"Fairly unique even among animated documentaries."
4 stars

I'm not sure I've ever before seen a biographical documentary where at the end, I wasn't entirely sure what the subject was famous for. But that's where "Rezo" leaves me, as Revan Gabriadze spends almost no time discussing his life's work, nor the personal life that happened alongside it. The film, directed by his son Levan, has him telling stories of the father's youth and a philosophical moment or two as he returns home an old man, apparently presuming that anyone watching this film knows the rest or will look it up. It's an odd but not unpleasant sensation.

Revaz was born in what is now the country of Georgia, at the time part of the Soviet Union, in 1936; his uncle was a pilot who died during the war. He grew up in the city of Kutaisi, something of a mommy's boy, teased and bullied by everyone in town from kids to pallbearers, his best friend a rat in the library with whom he shared books (as Revaz devoured the contents, "Ippoli" chewed the leather covers). An illness led to him spending the summer in the country with his grandparents, next door to a camp full of German POWs. One was assigned to help around their plot of land, becoming a source of friction between the grandparents. By the end of two summers, he's grown more confident, enough to take chances on himself as a writer and artist, eventually making movies in Moscow and opening a marionette theater.

Animation and cartooning are not mentioned during the film; maybe they don't need to be. Gabriadze the elder is credited as the art director, so the animation is presumably based upon Rezo's own drawings. Those images are simple and appealing, brought to life in what appears to be classic cel-based style with fluid movement, though it sometimes skips showy, complex motions (for instance, when Rezo's grandmother washes her hair, the audience doesn't see any water). Every character is full of personality that emerges right away, and crude jokes share space with sometimes foreboding atmospheres. His flights of fantasy as a young boy are bounded, built around the portraits of authority figures judging him, intimidating in a way that a creative child can either miss or twist to his own amusement. Kutaisi itself is crowded and overwhelming when he is there as a child, though a bit less so when he revisits as an adult.

The animation accompanies the man's own narration, which is sentimental but not saccharine, and if the subtitles are any indication, full of fun wordplay and turns of phrase. You can hear him enjoying that without showing off, delivering everything with a stoic but never quite neutral expression. He's a fine raconteur, and the film lets him tell these stories so that they can be things that happened to him but also everyone, not merely fuel to make him the sort of person they make movies about. Son Levan "Leo" Gabriadze surrounds him with art supplies and shoots those scenes in black-and-white, reinforcing that these images are Rezo's and letting them make a stronger impression, even if they are only half of a fairly short film.

If the mostly-older, Slavic crowd at the theater was any indication, Revaz Gabriadze still has plenty of fans. I'll find out why another day and just enjoy the movie for now.

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originally posted: 09/13/19 10:28:48
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Directed by
  Levan Gabriadze

Written by
  Revaz Gabriadze


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