Magdanas Lurja (Magdana’s Donkey, 1955)
The debut film by Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkheidze is a rural period neorealistic drama set in 19th century Georgia.
Tengiz Abuladze was arguably one of the most important figures of the Georgian cinema. Even though his filmography for years remained fairly unknown, he managed to establish himself in the cinephiles’ conscience with his special trilogy which took about 20 years to be completed. Rezo Chkheidze has also been a fairly unknown director outside his homeland although his war drama film Jariskatsis Mama (Father of a Soldier, 1964) had an international release. Before their later famed careers, the directors had their first approach with international audience in 1955 with their debut film Magdanas Lurja (Magdana’s Donkey / მაგდანას ლურჯა). The film participated in the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and it was awarded as the Best Short Fiction Film.
The story is set in a Georgian village in the late 19th century. The widow Magdana (Dudukhana Tserodze) lives in a poor house with her four young children. Every morning she must walk to their nearest town to sell yogurt, since this is their only income. One day and while their mother is absent, two of her children, the six-year-old son Mikho (Mikho Borashvili) and the three-year-old daughter Kato (Nani Chiqvinidze) find lying on the ground a sick donkey. His condition looks really bad. The children decide to look after him, they bring him home and with the help of the fellow villagers the donkey is healed. The family calls him Lurja (a common donkey name in Georgian) and finally Magdana can use him for her difficult work. Unfortunately their happiness will not last for long.
Magdana’s Donkey is practically a very simple and comprehensible story. The filmmakers tried to follow at some level the acceptable for the time genre of socialist realism by placing their working class heroes in difficult while convincing conditions. With their debut film they also show that the Soviet cinema is at a stylistic turning point, and for that reason the influences from the silent films of the previous decades are more than obvious. The low-angle heroic close-up shots of the protagonists and especially of Magdana’s face and the purely Russian distant cinematography on the critical scenes intensify this feeling from the past. The positive thing with Magdana’s Donkey is that Abuladze and Chkheidze decided to blend their past with their present. For that reason they chose a highly neorealistic dramaturgical approach to develop their drama. Even though their story is purely linear, they avoided the melodrama touch that was the main characteristic of the innocent Soviet films of the era, and they preferred a slightly stronger and more brutal depiction, which was somehow closer to the trend of European films of the early 1950s. This diversification naturally created interest and caused reactions.
Abuladze and Chkheidze with their debut movie are showing clearly their influences, their knowledge and their expectations. Magdana’s Donkey was filmed in the period next to their graduation from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow (VGIK) and right after their return to Georgia where they worked initially in the field of documentaries. For the film’s screenplay they collaborated with the famous Georgian writer and film historian Carlo Gogodze. There was always a threat that the film would never been completed or released since the filming was suspended for a long time and the censorship committee was not totally satisfied with the initial result. Magdana’s Donkey was not just another digestible film of socialist introspection and that was something that the officials could not comprehend easily. Luckily the success that the film had at Cannes and Edinburgh film festivals in conjunction with the rapid changes in the political and social level in the USSR and the love of the Georgian audience for the movie prevented a possible ban.
A rural period drama may seem quite outdated for today’s standards but Abuladze and Chkheidze created a film that does not need any sort of further explanation. Through this excessive plainness, Magdana’s Donkey is a film that easily succeeds to touch the emotions of any viewer.