In Bloom is the kind of film that would once have been deemed “Neorealist,” then “kitchen sink,” and most recently “miserabilist,” though rarely accurately. Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s coming-of-age film, Georgia’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, is less an indulgence in despair than it is a calculated accumulation of horrors designed to show violence percolating through a society. That makes it sound kind of wan and unpleasant, but it’s also electrifyingly well made.
The film opens on a radio announcer in the background telling us that the people of Georgia are “warriors by nature” and that they should all be armed. It then puts that observation to the test. Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria) are two young teenage girls living in Tbilisi in the early nineties. Best friends, they do everything together: Wait in crushing bread lines; walk to and from school and get harassed by male hooligans; attend the same class and get harangued by the same stern teacher. Even apart, their experiences are shared: Both of their families seem to explode in resentment at the drop of a hat.
Every interaction in the film, especially in its first hour, is built on anger and the promise of violence. Two particular encounters that Natia has with boys are quite telling in their contrast. The first boy proposes to her, presenting it not as a tender request, but an ultimatum. Another boy, a kinder-faced one, takes her aside and tells her he has something important to give her. He finds a quiet corner and makes her close her eyes, romantically. And then, he gives her … a gun.
The gun, as Dostoevsky once observed, changes everything. I was also reminded of Hitchcock, who used to say that a scene of people sitting around a table would suddenly gain suspense if you showed a bomb ticking under the table beforehand. Here, the gun redefines the tenor of the story and introduces an element of power into the film’s seemingly endless pattern of hopelessness and rage. It becomes a secret shared by the two girls; they trade it back and forth, because each thinks the other may need it. Where once the film’s unfolding of domestic and social oppression seemed generalized, suddenly every scene becomes focused: You wonder which of the two girls will finally fire that gun, and how.
But the film, while purposeful, isn’t quite so schematic as that. The directors stay close on their characters and let scenes play out in handheld long takes, so that the miseries inflicted never feel distant or clinical, but immediate. They also make the bleak grubbiness of this world genuinely tactile: When one of the girls leans against a grimy bathroom door at school, you might feel tempted to yell out a warning. In Bloom feels, more than anything else, like a war movie: When an argument between Natia’s drunk father and her mother explodes into a fight, you feel close enough to feel the emotional shrapnel, even after they take it offscreen. (Is it any wonder that there’s a war going on elsewhere in the country, in the breakaway region of Abkhazia?)
Life, unlike the movies, is a lot more complicated than simple formulas of antagonism, violence, and power would have us believe. And as it continues, what once seemed like a tale of two girls against the world slowly becomes something more nuanced, harder to pin down. Characters begin to accept their unhappiness, in ways both understandable and horrific. Power becomes less attractive, and the anguish is submerged into ritual. Near the end, one of the girls does a solo dance that’s alternately exhilarating, terrifying, and sad, and she does it without ever changing the grim expression on her face. The riveting moment feels like a passage into adulthood – both a celebration as well as a dance of death.