At one point in Otar Iosseliani’s Pastorale (1975), a train trundles through the Georgian countryside in which the film takes place, announcing its approach with a low blast of its horn that almost immediately gives way to a song sung in the nation’s traditional polyphonic style. Though it’s mixed with the rattling of the locomotive, the music appears to be non-diegetic; there’s no obvious sign of singing among the laborers in the fields who pause in their work to watch the train go by, who stand all but motionless while they stare at the passengers staring back at them. Could it be, perhaps, that this music is what the agrarian scenery evokes in the minds of the more urban-looking passengers?
Whatever the case, the musical interlude is brief. From the fields, the film cuts to a truck packed full of farm laborers as it stops at a railway crossing where the gate is coming down, much to their very vocal displeasure. Again, the low blast of the horn; again, the clatter of the train making its way along the tracks at no great speed; and again, beautiful music arising unexpectedly to mingle with these mundane sounds. This time, there’s no question of its being diegetic: it’s Mozart, specifically the “Là ci darem la mano” duet from Don Giovanni. What may seem an odd choice at first — certainly, from a stylistic standpoint, less suited to the surroundings than the earlier polyphonic singing — is actually quite apt. “Là ci darem la mano” is a song of seduction, in which the opera’s eponymous nobleman attempts to lure the peasant girl Zerlina away from her fiance and she finds herself surrendering to his charms. Pastorale‘s laborers, too, appear to fall under the spell of the train and the strangers onboard; mere moments after grousing at the railway employee who lowered the gate, the people in the truck are gazing at the inconvenient machine with smiles on many of their faces, almost as if entranced. Is it simple friendliness toward the passengers looking back at them from the windows, or is it the fact that these people and the train itself are symbols of another existence — possibly more exciting and glamorous than their own, undoubtedly different? There’s a romance about it for them, just as there’s a romance about their way of life for the passengers. As with the polyphonic singing, the music doesn’t last long. The train picks up speed and moves out of sight; the railway employee raises the gate; Mozart fades away; the truck crosses the tracks. Everyday life resumes.
A little moment, this sequence, running just over two minutes from start to finish, yet it serves as a tidy encapsulation of Pastorale as a whole — rather too tidy, in a sense. The film concerns a city-based quartet of classical musicians, two men and two women who, along with a third woman, spend a period of time living and rehearsing in the country, where they stay in the home of a local family. Urban meets rural, as in the train scene, but things are decidedly more prosaic at close hand and for an extended period than they are through the window of a moving vehicle.
Pastorale might be described as a movie made up entirely of little moments, with next to nothing in the way of plot or major events. At the beginning, the visitors arrive; at the end, they depart; in between, they try to perfect their music while life goes on more or less as usual for the vast majority of the villagers, despite the presence of these outsiders who provide an incongruous soundtrack for their daily tasks. That’s not to say that the villagers are indifferent to the musicians. They make an effort to welcome them, urging one man to drink with them shortly after he arrives, for example, and they ask them questions about how often they practice. (One woman in the house where the musicians are staying seems less interested in their art than in a plaid miniskirt left lying on a bed.) Still, farming and laundry and cooking and cleaning and all of the other duties of country living can’t be put on hold for long.
In music, the term “pastorale” refers to a piece with a pastoral quality, suggestive of rural life. From the first shots depicting the film’s main setting (following a short opening scene in the city), bucolic local color abounds: unpaved roads, animals everywhere, a little old man carrying an enormous bundle of hay on his back. However, for all of these rustic charms and instances of sheer beauty — and there are many — Iosseliani’s Pastorale doesn’t idealize this world the way a musical pastorale might. It’s not so much the obvious downsides, the dirt and the remoteness of the place and the endless cycles of work, though all of these are present. What really stands out is the way the villagers seem to be involved in constant disputes, sometimes to the point of physical violence; so much for the country being more peaceful than the city.
For a start, there are conflicts with the officials in charge of the kolkhoz, the Soviet collective farm: one man uses the kolkhoz truck to transport stolen bricks, another — the older man seen carrying hay at the beginning — reaps in an area off-limits to him. “You don’t reap. You don’t allow to reap,” he complains to the horseback-mounted official riding off with his confiscated scythe, then adds, not quite under his breath, “Moron.” A rebellious spirit lurks beneath this village’s quaint exterior. That being said, not all of their disputes are with authority figures. The villagers are just as likely to fight among themselves, with the family members and friends and neighbors whom they have to deal with day in and day out. Perhaps the most memorable of these fights is the one that breaks out over the placement of a window on a new house under construction. “What is it? Who allowed you? You’re going to sit by the window and watch us?” shouts a woman standing on a nearby porch. “It’s my business where I put the window. We’re not asking for your advice,” retorts her neighbor. But it’s everybody’s business, apparently, because before long a crowd gathers, and each person in it seems to have a strong opinion on the matter.
Notably, this fight is cross-cut with scenes of the musicians enjoying a near-idyllic jaunt in the lovely landscape around the village itself, where they’ve gone to look at a century-old mill, apparently a point of interest in the area. (Even this pleasurable day out is tainted a bit by reality. “All this walk for this?” one of the women says upon seeing the mill.) The five visitors seem most at ease when they’re by themselves, when they don’t have to make polite but stilted conversation with their hosts (and when their rehearsals aren’t being interrupted by crop dusters flying directly overhead and various other annoyances). They are, in essence, their own tiny community, especially out here, far from everything and everyone else they know — and, as in every group of people, especially people who have to live and work together, the individual members occasionally get on one another’s nerves. One woman, seemingly more intense and serious about her music than the others, snaps at a colleague who plays a record while she’s practicing alone. “You do it on purpose?” she asks, stamping her foot. “You don’t let me work.” At another point, when the locals are feasting in honor of a guest, one of the male musicians is irritated to find that his friends have left him there alone with the villagers and gone into another room. “Couldn’t take it anymore,” one woman says, and the other man in the group complains that he can’t stand their cheap wine. “It’s impolite,” the first man insists as he leaves them to return to the table, but to no avail.
As this suggests, the two groups — the outsiders and the villagers — never really overcome their fundamental separateness. There’s no open hostility or over-the-top rudeness (the offended musician seems to be far more sensitive to his friends’ impoliteness than their hosts are), but these are different people from different backgrounds leading different lives, in spite of their close proximity for perhaps a few weeks or months. Only once do the musicians seem really engaged with the culture around them, and that’s when they meet a brother and sister who perform folk songs. They spend an evening listening to them, recording them on tape, playing the recordings back for them. Music crosses boundaries; it also serves as an example of the good that can result when people come together, when they’re literally in harmony. It’s not always easy, but people need people — to accomplish things both ordinary and extraordinary, to share love and support, to get more out of life.
But what about those individuals who belong to one group yet long to be adopted into another? Such is the situation in which Edouki (Nana Iosseliani), the teenage daughter in the musicians’ host family, finds herself. From the day they come to the village, they spark something in her. It soon becomes evident that she has a crush on Niko, one of the members of the group, but her interest in them goes beyond that; witness, for instance, the way she stops and stares at their keyboard while their rooms are being arranged, or the look of awed excitement on her face when she hears them tuning their instruments for the first time. Although she has plenty of work to do around the house, she does seem to have a bit more leisure than the adults in the community, and she spends as much time as possible with the visitors. She makes herself a kind of protector to them, keeping the younger children away from them during their rehearsal and eliminating noises that could disrupt them; she serves as their guide when they visit the mill; and gradually, she becomes a companion to them, particularly when a period of rain keeps them indoors playing games. Like the laborers transfixed by the train, she’s under the spell of these people who represent an unknown life.
“You were not made to be a peasant girl,” Don Giovanni sings to Zerlina. Perhaps this is what Edouki hears in the quartet’s music, without their making any conscious effort to “seduce” her. If she were a few years older, she might be able to do something about it, but she’s not much more than a child. For all of her efforts, she can never truly be part of their group, and when they return to the city, she’ll be left behind — her external life more or less the same as it was before they arrived, whatever changes the experience has wrought inside her. What will her future hold? She might marry one of the local boys who always seem to be trying to attract her attention and lead a hardworking life like her mother and countless generations of women in the village before her; she might be happy that way too, at least on the whole, if not entirely free from a yearning for romance and change. There’s a scene early on in the film in which two women, apparently Edouki’s mother and grandmother, are working with dough at a table set up outside, near a road. A bus pulls to a stop. (Music can be heard in this scene as well, possibly coming from the bus itself.) The younger of the two women exchanges glances and smiles with a man sitting in the back row. She quickly lowers her eyes, but when the bus pulls away, she watches it go with a wistful expression — until the older woman taps her on the arm to break her reverie and get her back to work. Everyday life resumes.