Mirroring many aspects of Hemmingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ George Ovashvili’s second feature Corn Island gives a Georgian treatment to the classic and modest storytelling traditions of man Vs nature. It’s a humble drama of an elderly man wrestling with his livelihood on a meagre spit of land in the Enguri River that separates Georgia from Abkhazia. Reflexive, the film compromises dialogue for the power of image, gestures and the emphasis of isolation but with all the simplicity Corn Island offers us we realise more and more towards the third act of the film that a complex friction is simmering beneath the surface of all this naturalistic silence.
Swelling of the water. Thumbing of oars. The creaking of the humble little wooden fishing boat. We the audience are introduced to the world of corn island through an exaggeration of sounds. They evoke both rural peace and menace. The beauty of the landscape is deceiving and we know as the old man surveys it a tasking trail of endurance will ensue.
With the help of his granddaughter, an obedient girl with small angry eyes entering pubescence, he sets about tending the land. They build a wooden shack, sow the corn seeds and catch, cure and smoke their own fish. Little dialogue is spoken, yet the girl understands her duties like an instinct; it is her instincts she doesn’t understand. Arriving with a rag doll, the girl at first is a child, playing balancing games on random bits of wood on the water’s edge. As her duties increase and with them her knowledge of nature so comes the step into adolescence. Looking at her chest, her clothes soaked in river water, she notices the small mounds of puberty blossoming, her wet shirt clinging to them. She tries to hide it from her grandfather- she always tries to hide her body from him, perhaps with a fear she will lose her innocence in his eyes. The rag doll she once slept now hangs on the wall like a crucifix. She has sacrificed her youth to duties and stoicism.
The river is frequented by soldiers passing through of small boats. The young beauty catches their attention. At first she seems offended and then intrigued by it and when a wounded soldier takes refuge with them after they find him bleeding amongst the corn sexual tensions simmer between the two and leave the old man wondering if the soldier can be left alone with the curious nymphet.
The context of this film is ambiguous to western audiences. Throughout, the military presence of soldiers in the river gives interjections of Georgian politics which make Corn Island lose some of the universal appeal which the classic ‘man/ nature’ element gives it. However, the political situation is uses solely as a backdrop and is never explored. This allusion to politics contemporizes the traditional story theme it draws upon and relates the film within its own national cinema.
Dialogue is scarce. This muteness doesn’t work as well as in films like Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas (1984) where the silence of Travis is balanced by an explosion of speech at the end. The lack of dialogue augments the tone of the film in some sequences but ultimately the lack of dialogue equals a lacking in the film. Although it further emphasises the isolation of the character it drains the film of entertainment and makes it rely too heavily on visuals that towards the end become repetitive.
Just as The Old Man in Hemmingway’s story loses the big fish to the sharks after endless endurance and finally success, this old man loses his livelihood to the mercilessness of nature. A consistent colour palette of beige, brown, yellow and blue is quickly immersed in gloomy black and navy and the patience of the viewer is rewarded by a dramatic extravaganza of destruction that recalls Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). It’s an immensely tense end scene that flips instinctively back to it calm meditated state, finishing with the semi-circular image of a man a year on arriving to the island and inspecting the soil.