Hostages (Mdzevlebi): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Gripping true story of crime and punishment back in the USSR.

An infamous skyjacking incident inspired Georgian director Rezo Gigineishvili's retro thriller, a Berlinale world premiere.
Closely based on a real-life hijacking in 1983 in the old Soviet republic of Georgia, Hostages is a good-looking thriller with a tragic Cold War back story. Georgia-born director Rezo Gigineishvili spent years intensively researching his fourth feature, a Georgian-Russian-Polish co-production which premieres at the Berlinale this week.

The truth behind the botched hijack and its bitter aftermath remain contentious in Georgia more than 30 years later. Changing names and tweaking a few minor details, Gigineishvili stikes a careful balance between nerve-jangling action yarn and forensic procedural, even if this methodically non-judgmental approach sometimes risks slipping into aloof detachment.

Hostages should appeal to viewers in Georgia and neighboring nations who are familiar with the events being depicted, while further festivals will almost certainly take a bite after Berlin. A compelling cocktail of thriller dynamics, glossy visuals and political themes could also generate specialist buzz overseas, especially given the blooming reputation of Georgian arthouse cinema in recent years.

The lightly disguised story behind the film is the hijacking of Aeroflot Flight 6833, which left the Georgian capital of Tblisi on November 18, 1983. It was bound for Leningrad via Batumi, a resort town close to the Turkish border. Soon after take-off, an armed gang of youthful hijackers tried to seize control of the plane in a doomed bid to escape the Soviet Union. But their amateurish plan failed and the pilots returned to Tblisi, where the airliner was stormed by Russian special forces. Three crew members, three hijackers and two passengers died.

Gigineishvili provides some context for these reckless antics in his opening act. Already earmarked as potential troublemakers by the KGB for their interest in forbidden fruit like western rock music and the Orthodox church, the would-be hijackers are mostly artists and actors from Georgia's bourgeois intellectual elite. They have grown up with all social advantages possible in a Soviet satellite state, yet are still willing to risk their lives to escape a stifling, suffocating regime. The film's blunt title pointedly invites more than one interpretation.

The day before the hijack, boyishly handsome screen actor Nika (Irakli Kvirikadze) marries his glamorous girlfriend Anna (Tina Dalakishvili) in a gloriously immersive set-piece wedding scene, which Gigineishvili and his Russian cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants shoot with dancing cameras and lengthy tracking shots. At the airport, the couple exploit their fame and newlywed status to smoothly slip past airport security carrying illegal firearms. But the hijack itself is a catalogue of errors, obstacles and delays. Unwisely pressing ahead with the plan anyway, Nika and his accomplices soon become nervy and trigger-happy, with lethal consequences.

Back at Tblisi airport, the authorities pressure the gang's parents to negotiate a peaceful resolution, only to be sidelined in favor of brute military force. At the subsequent legal trial, the privileged background of the surviving hijackers is leveraged by the state to push for maximum penalties, backed by treacherous plea bargains and false promises of leniency.

Gigineishvili shows himself adept at sweaty suspense and tightly wound tension, but not so great at exploring character motivation. Hostages never really gets below the skin of its anti-heroic protagonists, who are inadequately explained and sketchily delineated. A little more personal insight would have helped audiences engage with these relatively recent yet oddly remote events, which take place in a failed utopia where owning a Beatles album is a dangerous outlaw act. A bitter coda scene, in which parents mournfully search for their children's unmarked graves after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, packs a powerful kick.