Amid stunning cinematography, a moral play plays out

The Legacy (l'heritage)

on January 19, 2007 by Jay Antani
One of the strangest foreign cinema imports of 2007 is destined to be The Legacy, directed by the Georgian father-son tag team of Gela and Temur Babluani, both acclaimed filmmakers in their own right. Father Temur has been an award-winning mainstay of European cinema since the '70s. His son Gela's last film (his third), 13 Tzameti, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 edition of Sundance.

The clashing of cultures and values lies at the heart of their first directorial collaboration, The Legacy, as a trio of French backpackers arrives in Georgia in order that one of them, Patricia (Sylvie Testud), can claim her family inheritance, a remote castle. Her companions, Jean (Stanislas Merhar) and Celine (Olga Legrand), tote video cameras along, eager, presumably, to document their travels in the Georgian hinterlands. To facilitate their journey to the castle, the trio hires Nikolai (Pascal Bongard), a translator with a perpetually glum expression. That he's French might explain his down-at-the-mouth attitude, but we eventually realize that it belies Nikolai's deep sense of disgust, directed not at his adopted culture but at his native one.

The Legacy builds on its themes as the travelers, aboard a rickety bus, come into contact with an amusing assortment of Georgian country folk. In their innate cultural snobbery, on subtle display here, the trio recoils at the boorish locals but can't help but be morbidly fascinated by them. When a sullen young man (George Babluani) climbs aboard lugging a coffin that he explains is meant for his accompanying grandfather (Leo Gaparidze), very much alive but fated to die the following day, the French are positively tweaking with curiosity.

They decide to follow the young man, his grandfather and their coffin to their destination, a village where the grandfather's execution will put to rest an ancient local feud. Along the way, the group — Olga especially — warms to the young man, but only insofar as their bond serves their viewfinder-voyeurism. Despite the demurring Nikolai, they venture on, charged by the prospect of capturing a backward tribal ritual on camera. As the time of the execution draws near, the Babluanis, in a directorial sleight of hand, shift their story's tone from that of a laidback satiric travelogue to a moral tragedy, marked by suspense and irony.

Tariel Maliava's marvelous cinematography draws us into Georgia's countryside. Indeed, among The Legacy 's simple pleasures is to watch its gorgeous images unfold. Another is to decode its performances, for nothing and no one is quite what they seem — we may feel attracted to certain characters but repelled from what they represent. Stylistically, too, The Legacy is a deftly blended melange of European styles, from the wide-open vistas reminiscent of Russian cinema to the moments of intimate absurdity echoing Antonioni.

Beneath its lulling patina, The Legacy raises the question of whether a "civilized" society has any right to judge a "primitive" one when Patricia, Jean and Olga's clumsy meddling, justified by their sense of righteous responsibility, creates more problems than it solves. Who gets the last laugh here but Nikolai himself — a man in exile, straddling the "old" and the "new." Understanding the ways of both and unable to change either, he knows enough to profit where he can. Distributor: TBD
Cast: Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar, Olga Legrand, Pascal Bongard, George Babluani and Leo Gaparidze
Directors/Screenwriters: Gela Babluani and Temur Babluani
Producer: Gela Babluani
Genre: Drama; French- and Georgian-language, subtitled
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 77 min.
Release date: TBD

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