Movie review: Slow film

‘Corn Island’ is quiet but rewarding.

Georgian film ‘Corn Island’ (photo credit: PR)
Georgian film ‘Corn Island’
(photo credit: PR)
Directed by George Ovashvili.
Written by Ovashvili, Roelof Jan Minneboo and Nugzar Shataidze.
Hebrew title: Ee HaTiras.
100 minutes. In Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian, check with theaters for subtitle information.
As mainstream movies become more reliant on car chases and special effects, there is a movement in independent film to make quieter, more contemplative stories. Movies like Bal, a Turkish movie about a beekeeper and his son, or Cristian Mungiu’s most recent feature Beyond the Hills, which focus on the nature that surrounds the characters and use dialogue sparingly.
George Ovashvili’s Corn Island is a new film that fits this mold. From Georgia, it focuses on a grandfather and granddaughter who build themselves a home on an island that rises out of the Inguri River during the rainy season. The movie, which has little dialogue, gracefully tells a story that grows progressively more complicated but never leaves the island.
The movie is set in a beautiful area, but one that is in the middle of an armed conflict. There was a war between Georgian and Abkhaz forces on the Inguri River in the ’90s, and both sides keep troops stationed along it. Russian forces also patrol it.
The movie opens as the grandfather (Ilyas Salmon) rows up to a tiny island. He tests the soil and immediately starts digging. Soon, he returns with his granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili), who looks about 14 but carries a rag doll.
Together, and, for the most part, wordlessly, they fish, build a house and get the soil ready for planting. As they work, boats with soldiers from Georgia and Abkhazia, and later, from Russia, stop by, questioning the grandfather suspiciously and eying the granddaughter.
Clearly, they are desperate or they would not continue with their enterprise, which makes them vulnerable to the whims of all these soldiers, as well as the weather. Eventually, a wounded Georgian soldier washes ashore, and the grandfather decides to nurse him back to health, even though he isn’t sure he can trust the man with his granddaughter.
Occasionally, as you watch, you may find yourself thinking subversive thoughts, such as: Would it be worth it to be a subsistence farmer in rural Georgia if it meant your granddaughter would be so cheery, hardworking and obedient that she would rather clean fish than WhatsApp snapshots to her friends? And when the grandfather finds the soldier, he manages to treat what appears to be a bullet wound with what he happens to have on hand.
This brought to mind what the late The New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael wrote in a review of the movie Witness, in which Harrison Ford is saved from his bullet wound by folk remedies administered by the Amish.
“I still wish that just once somebody in a movie who was treated with humble ancient remedies would kick off.”
But these thoughts will be fleeting, since the movie gets more engrossing as it goes on.
Corn Island, which was shortlisted for the Oscar but did not receive a nomination, has nevertheless won awards at festivals around the world, including the Grand Prix-Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
It is an achingly beautiful, flawlessly acted and carefully plotted story of the fight against nature and evil for survival. It will be way too slow for most viewers, but unlike many films in this vein, there is always a strong narrative pull. I’ve gotten impatient at many nearly wordless, ponderous films, but director Ovashvili managed to pull me into this world. At moments when the corn crop was threatened – as well as other points in the story – I was on the edge of my seat, because I had watched the two characters turn the island from a pile of mud into a home and a farm. Anyone who has tried hard to build a home or just to survive will be able to relate to Corn Island.