A review requested by Fedor Illitchev, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser. My thanks as well for the historical background he was able to provide for this film, about which virtually no information is readily available in English.

During the most censorious periods in the history of Soviet cinema - which is to say, everything from the start of the Second World War until the early 1980s, with the exception of the Krushchev Thaw between roughly 1956 and 1965 - there were, broadly speaking, two reasons that a film might trigger the official objection of the government. One, obviously, was because it contained subversive narrative elements that could be interpreted as critical of Soviet policy, or Communism generally. The other reason is a little stranger: basically, a movie could be stamped down on account of being too stylish. The charge was "formalism", meaning that the film was driven more by aesthetics and filmmaking technique than presenting a clear story with a plain message, and was perhaps so confusing and obscure in its challenging application of those aesthetics that the people in charge couldn't even tell if it was subversive or not.

It was wicked formalism, rather that touchy political content, that mostly explains the aborted career of Mikhäil Kobakhidzé a filmmaker from what's now Georgia. At the dawn of the '60s, in his early 20s, Kobakhidzé attended the state-run Gerasimov film school, until his graduation in '65. Between 1961 and 1969, he completed five short films, three at school and two subsequently; the last, Musicians, finally pushed the censors too hard, and his next completed project wouldn't come until years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he was invited to make En chemin in 2003 as part of a French series of short films.

If Musicians killed off his career, it was his fourth film, 1967's Umbrella, that first triggered the warning signs. To your eyes or mine the wordless 18-minute film - available in its entirety on YouTube - is naught but a poetic fable about human connections starting to blur and pull apart, carried on the back of an uninterpreted image of an umbrella floating along the Georgian countryside of its own accord. But we lack the finely-honed paranoia of a Soviet official. There's one way into which it's at least possible to read troubling politics into the film: the umbrella is associated with distinctively French-sounding music cues that I can't place 100% (though one motif is instantly recognisable from Gershwin's An American in Paris), while the clean-cut youths the umbrella entrances and confuses are linked, in the umbrella's absence, to a passage from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The potential for a politicised meaning to this Western vs. Russian war on the soundtrack was dangerous enough to bring unwanted attention Kobakhidzé's way, if not, itself, enough to shut him down.

As for the film itself, it's probably easiest if we start out by just working through the plot. A young man (Gia Avalishvili) works in some not-entirely clear capacity by an isolated stretch of railroad tracks, and in his downtime entertains his girlfriend (Jana Petraitite) by putting on cute little shows, with a curtain and everything, in which he plays Tchaikovsky on a recorder. A white umbrella floats by, and they're compelled to give chase through the countryside and into town, and it taunts them, staying just out of reach. They give up for a bit and dance inside the man's house, while the umbrella lingers outside the window. It follows them and they're finally able to grab it, and all seems happy and free till another man (Ramaz Giorgobiani) comes by, and the umbrella flies over to him. The woman follows him and they start to walk off; she slows and changes her mind handing the umbrella over to the second man and walking back, though the framing of this final shot - nothing but her quiet, ambiguous smile - make it deliberately impossible to be sure what's on her mind in that moment.

If there's a political reading that seems to me to fit the evidence, it's one that would actually tend to support the Soviet Union: the allure of Western culture, embodied by the umbrella, drags the young couple away from their work and their lives, embarrasses them in front of their neighbors, and generally bothers and distracts them. In the end, they both abjure the umbrella, she by deliberate choice and he by learning that its charms are all just a big come-on, in the end - this true regardless of what the umbrella represents, or if it represents anything at all. So it is, if I have any idea what the hell I'm talking about, a fable about the triumph of Soviet youths (calling them good Georgian youths would be one of those subversive narrative elements I mentioned) over the siren call of Western art.

But then, what Umbrella is actually about is rather more abstract and emotive than breaking down its plot beats into editorial cartoon symbols. The bulk of the film is about pure experience, the young man and the young woman and the umbrella moving in stark black and white against the mottled grey dirt of the Georgian hills. They run and skip in a highly exaggerated series of angular movements of, transformed by the camera and the music (which dominates the minimalist, plastered-on sound design) into playful dancing. Just about the only thing it's possible to confidently declare about Kobakhidzé's critical reputation in the West is that people like to compare him to Jacques Tati, and that's absolutely fair: the fascination with how bodies and limbs can move in graceful sweeps and sharp jabbing gestures, and how the angle the filmmaker takes on those bodies changes our perception of what they're doing, readily evokes that French genius that Kobakhidzé had never seen. But the movie that Kobakhidzé had never seen that I kept thinking of was Richard Lester and Peter Seller's masterful exercise in manic slapstick, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film from 1959, which similarly finds itself deeply fascinated with the geometry of the human form.

What both of those comparisons miss - for both of them attend only to Umbrella's broadly comic aspects - is the gauziness of the movie, the sensibility that positions it within a widely-defined Eastern European artistic tradition instead of the widely-defined Western European/American tradition. As much as the film is charming, it's even more hushed and haunting, with the umbrella's fluid gliding through the landscape and the camera's graceful pursuit of it adding an ethereal feeling. Kobakhidzé and cinematographer Nikoloz Sukhishvili's images can have a very hazy and ghostly quality, owing in no small part to the stark whiteness of the umbrella serving to so thoroughly strip any and all naturalism from the film. But also owing to the way that the images all seem to be made of curves and irregular shapes, in everything from the rolling hills to the floppiness of laundry in the wind - the man's little square house is a striking bulwark against this, a concrete manifestation of stability that emphasises the weirdness around it (the shots of an out-of-focus umbrella through the house's windows are absolutely striking, as instantly unforgettable as anything I've seen).

The film's brevity and its frankly opaque "meaning" more or less require that it function more as a mood piece and an expression of emotions. It's not quite an experimental film in the way I like to use that term - it tells a definite story and that story has resonances - but it's fair to call it experimental in the way that it generates those moods and emotions purely through movement, editing, and gradations of greyscale. It's deeply mesmerising and yes, it's absolutely formalist - that the Soviets would get a little nervous watching it makes perfect sense even if the film itself has little that anyone could object to within it. It's joyful cinema, cut with just the right amount of bittersweet, and the way that it builds that joy within its craftsmanship is far more affecting than a blunter treatment could have been; it's a sorry accident of history that it's for exactly that reason that the film was shunted to the memory hole that makes it so deeply obscure now.