The title of In Bloom refers both to the movie's 14-year-old protagonists, Eka and Natia, and to the burgeoning Georgian nation where the film, set a year after that country's independence, is set. The double meaning becomes clear early on. What takes longer to recognize is the title's bitter irony.
The film takes place in 1992, by which point the newly sovereign Georgia had already started descending into what would become years of civil war, particularly in Abhkazia and South Ossetia, two territories with Russian-backed independence movements of their own.
Within that political context, directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross focus tightly on their two protagonists, making sure to show us how Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria) are adolescents coping with less desperate and more familiar worries: school gossip and, in Natia's case, a short-tempered alcoholic father and a crush on the handsome Lado (Data Zakareishvili).
And so to start Georgia's post-independence turmoil is felt only on the edges of the narrative. It's there in the poverty we witness at chaotic breadlines, there among the fathers absent at war — or, in the case of Eka's dad, doing time for violent crimes. It's felt in radio broadcasts reporting on bombings and curfews or proclaiming that "every Georgian in the country should be armed."
For Natia, the unrest also makes itself known in a romantic gesture from Lado, who takes her aside one day, tells her to close her eyes, and presents her with a gun. It's through that gift that we realize that Natia and Eka can't be saved from Georgia's fragile state either.
Perhaps what's most powerful about that scene is how, from the moment the weapon appears, we know that the principle of Chekhov's gun need not apply here. It doesn't matter whether or not the gun goes off; its mere presence is destructive enough.
To be sure, the gun offers benefits. Natia accepts the present with little concern and relishes the power she feels from owning it, while Eka also uses it to intimidate a boy who won't stop pursuing her. Nevertheless, if the gun serves as protection from a violent Georgian reality, it also denotes an acceptance of the country's fractured society.
That trade-off haunts the entirety of In Bloom, and Eka seems particularly aware of it. In the film's most powerful scene, she spontaneously performs a traditional dance at Natia's forced wedding to a man she doesn't love. Eka's transfixing display conveys compromise — an acknowledgement that because she can't stop this marriage that she opposes, she ought to celebrate with her friend — as well as fortitude. It's a demonstration that, as with many of the women the directors present in the film, submission doesn't mean forfeiting pride or strength.
The way Georgia's social tension simmers below the narrative here, then gradually affects the emotional lives of the characters, recalls the gripping accumulation of strain that Asghar Farhadi perfected in A Separation, another movie where characters gradually become overtaken by their own helplessness. More directly, In Bloom follows on 2012's The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, a documentary by Tinatin Gurchiani that offered bleak vignettes about the lives of young Georgians.
Although I was reserved about Gurchiani's movie when I first saw it, it came to mind often as I watched In Bloom. The two films represent different decades, but much of what troubles Eka, Natia and their classmates afflict the real-life teens and young adults presented in The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear; absent parents, incarcerated family members and the devastating Abkhazian War dominate both films.
In that sense, these are not merely complementary pictures, but practically inseparable ones — postcards from a country with historical scars that stubbornly refuse to heal, that keep it from flowering. (Recommended)