A film which was completely ignored at the IFFI ’10 in Goa but which would have repaid patience several fold was part of a small Georgian package. The film was shown in a bad print with a loud Russian commentary which had then been subtitled in English. Watching the film was a strenuous exercise but after a while it became evident that The Sun of the Sleepless (1992) is nothing short of a masterpiece, the kind of unknown film that makes one wish for film history to be rewritten. The film is, broadly speaking, ‘humanist’ but it is of another kind of humanism than the facile kind familiar in cinema today, although this needs some elaboration.
At the center of The Sun of the Sleepless (Udzinarta mze) is a doctor named Gela Bendeliani (Elgudzha Burduli) in a small town in Soviet Georgia, who has an unlimited capacity for generosity and forgiveness. When the film begins Dr Bendeliani encounters an old woman in a railway station who has forgotten her name, her family and where she lives. All she recollects is the name of an influential personage, once known to her. On rummaging through her belongings, Dr Bendeliani finds another name – which the woman identifies as her cousin’s. The doctor therefore escorts the old woman to the address of this cousin – to discover that there is no such person and the person with that name died ages ago. The doctor therefore takes the old woman home and has her installed there as ‘Granny’. If Dr Bendeliani’s doings take up one thread of the film, the other thread is taken up by his unruly son Dato (David Kazishvili).
When we first see Dato, he is jail and giving his jailors a great deal of trouble. His father Gela Bendeliani tries to explain to the warden – after Dato has just spat in his face – that his son is not really a bad boy. The warden is so incensed by this assertion that – in order to teach both of them a lesson – he personally thrashes the doctor until he has to be restrained. Dato is nonetheless released – in spite of himself – and we soon learn more about father and son.
Gela Bendeliani, it comes out, is a doctor working in a government institution who has been privately experimenting on white mice for 23 years to find a cure for cancer. The authorities disapprove of his work and he has already been thrown out of his job many times. He also has his own herbal remedies which he administers to patients whom officialdom has given up for lost and he has also just lost his job for the umpteenth time because he is blamed for the death of a man who was terminally ill. The doctor and his son therefore carry the equipment and caged rodents home and have the laboratory set up in an adjoining space. There are several mice in the lab – named Spinoza, Aristotle, Plato, Hegel etc., with the key one – a white mouse with a black stripe – named Pele. If Pele survives for a certain period, it will mean that the doctor has finally found a cure for cancer.
Dato apparently loves his father but The Sun of the Sleepless is clear that neither father nor son understand each other. Dato is involved in vaguely criminal dealings although he and his criminal friends spend their hours together in an automobile workshop. The first project undertaken by Dato after his release is a ‘hit’. The person he wishes to murder is the prison warden who beat up his father. He and his friends get in to the warden’s apartment but there is only his decrepit mother at home. The warden is apparently in Russia trying to get treatment for his daughter who is very ill. The rest of the film is about Dato’s doings with and without his father, Dato’s success at crime and Gela Bendeliani’s tragic failure in science.
Making The Sun of the Sleepless such a marked departure from even the best in world cinema is its attention to detail and the way it uses it. Detail, in the film, is not used to reinforce the action but actually to come in ‘conflict’ with it. To give the reader an instance, Dato and his friends are engaged by an old man to assault his own son-in-law on the day of his third marriage to a much younger woman. They have been promised a great deal of money and time is running out but at this moment, members of the gang are distracted by a cute puppy and are playing with it. In another sequence, the ‘Granny’ installed in Gela Bedaliani’s residence starts asserting her rights as his ‘grandmother’ and begins to order Dato around. Dato is a tough customer – and even a killer – but he has no option but to comply – and he does not do it with good humor but resentfully. Most of the best cinema in the world is ‘planar’ in the sense that the action takes place on one plane and agreements or disagreements between people can be worked out perfectly. In The Godfather, for instance, even enemies understand each other. In Babluani’s film, the world is too complex for any two people to understand an issue in the same way – even when they love each other. Instead of creating an uncomplicated world about simple people and asking us to empathize with them, the film, while creating a chaotic world in which things and people are constantly working at cross-purposes, still affects us as a profound affirmation of human endeavor.
To conclude, the film is a masterpiece of craft and the performances are extraordinarily convincing – even D. Kazishvili, an amateur actor gives a great performance as the impulsive Dato. The music, composed by the director Temur Babluani, is based on Georgian folk music and the song sung by Dato and his father at the film’s climax is perhaps among the most affecting in all of world cinema. Altogether, The Sun of the Sleepless needs to be placed in any great films list although few cinephiles have even heard of it.