Georgian filmmaker Levan Koguashvili’s Tribeca prize-winner, “Brighton 4th,” is a tragicomedy that sneaks up on you stealthily before flooring you with an emotional sucker punch in the final reel. At first, the film seems to be merely about sad sacks who compulsively gamble, losing the money they’ve been sent by family members in part because they can’t help giving in to mounting irritation. The amusing opening scene, in which a man (Temur Gvalia) attempts to pay an obnoxious fellow gambler so that he’ll leave, only to find himself forcibly removed from the room, is mirrored by a painful moment in the film’s midsection, when a younger man, Soso (Giorgi Tabidze), gambles away his remaining dollars in an act of desperation, all the while being tormented by the eating habits of the guy seated across from him. Both Gvalia and Tabidze’s addicts have a knack for digging deeper and deeper holes for themselves, and one imagines their lives would’ve fallen apart completely had they not had the good fortune of being related—as brother and son, respectively—to the man who emerges as the heart of the film, Kakhi.
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He is played by former Olympic world champion wrestler Levan Tedaishvili in only his second screen credit, following his portrayal of a titular role in 1987’s “Khareba da Gogia.” His wonderful performance here recalls everything I loved about the late Richard Farnsworth, a veteran stuntman who began acting later in life and proved to have a grace and delicate nuance that was all his own. For his final role as Alvin Straight in David Lynch’s 1999 masterpiece, “The Straight Story,” Farnsworth embodied the stubbornness of a man determined to live his twilight years on his own terms, refusing to see doctors while going to enormous lengths to aid his family. The same could be said of Kakhi, whose journey from his home in Tbilisi to Soso’s current dwelling in Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking neighborhood of Brighton Beach accompanies the picture’s delayed title card, arriving around the 15-minute mark. Like Alvin, Kakhi has an intuitive sense about people that enables him to look beneath their objectionable actions to find the aching human within. This results in numerous scenes that begin in a threatening manner before evolving into something disarmingly tender.
Take, for example, the sequence where Kakhi is recruited by Georgian immigrants at Soso’s boarding house as a heavy to intimidate Farik (Tolepbergen Baisakalov), the Kazakh employer extorting money from the women he’s hired as motel cleaners. At first, Farik is enraged and defensive, but as soon as one of his victims starts having a seizure, the dynamic shifts completely, triggering a startling empathy within the thief. This serves as the prelude to one of the film’s best scenes, where Kakhi reaches a place of understanding in regards to Farik that allows him to see what no one else can. He ultimately treats him no differently than he does his son, who squandered all the money he was meant to put towards medical school, leaving him $14,000 in debt to a local mob boss, Amir (Yuri Zur). On top of that, Soso is in need of a green card, which he hopes to obtain through a “fake marriage” to Lena, played by the sublime Nadia Mikhalkova, who was unforgettably featured at a young age in her father’s 1994 Oscar-winner, “Burnt by the Sun.” It’s clear, however, that there is genuine love between the pair, as she tends to his wounds even after howling in fury at his self-inflicted distress.