Giving a glimpse of traditional Georgian intimacy, ‘My Happy Family’ confronts viewers with a question which cuts to the heart of patriarchy: can a woman bound by duties to her family, ever be genuinely happy? As preached by the Catholicos-Patriarch on TV broadcast included in the background shot at the beginning of the film, feminine happiness resides in the domesticity of family-life. The sacrifice for husband and children, is according to traditional Christian morality, the source of contentment for the dutiful wife. And yet, there is a yearning for privacy within each one of us. This is what the protagonist of this film pursues. Manana (Ia Shughliashvili) is an exhausted middle-aged teacher, who suffocates under the weight of domestic obligations. She shares a cramped flat with two judgmental parents, an inattentive husband Soso (Merab Ninidze), and unemployed children. The film traces her small rebellion against patriarchal oppressions, and her quest for carving a space of her own.
In many respects, ‘My Happy Family’ speaks to, but also goes beyond the directors’ earlier focus on female oppression. Back in 2014, Ekvtimishvili and Gross released ‘In Bloom’ – a chronicle of the vulnerabilities experienced by young women at the hands of men, in 1990s Georgia. The heroine, 14-year old Natia, was brutally kidnapped and turned into a child bride. ‘In Bloom’ documents her small attempts of making do, amidst the misery of living with a brute. In contrast, ‘My Happy Family’, set some 30 years later, shows women’s personal growth and a shift in attitudes. The teenage girls from ‘In Bloom’ have grown, fought, and survived the societal pressures. We finally see them speaking back to power. For instance, there is a great awakening in Manana’s personality when her recently divorced student Tatia, advises her to make up her mind, stay focused, and free herself. This leads Manana to an undoubtfully bold decision – to leave her family and find a ‘room of one’s own’.
Centred around this story arch, the film is full of subtle, yet profoundly significant nuances. Manana is an educator who teaches a hagiographic novel to school students. As in a foretelling of the fate that could be, we see her referencing the ‘Martyrdom of Holy Queen Shushanik’, a manuscript describing the tragic fate of a noble Christian woman who was caught and tortured by her husband, after she attempted to leave her family, and their pressures to covert to Zoroastrianism. The allegory speaks volumes and instils the picture with intensity. Is this Manana’s future to come, or a demonstration of feminine strength and courage?
There is a sense throughout the film, that ‘My Happy Family’ is extremely realistic. Extraordinary filming and acting enhance this feeling even more. The camera often tracks Manana from the back, or focuses closely on her expressions, making viewers feel almost present in her life. Consider the scene at a class reunion party – when Manana accidently discovers that her husband had cheated and fathered a son with another woman. The camera swiftly follows Manana. As she bursts into tears, the close focus on her face makes the viewer almost experience the contortions of anger, grief, and injustice. Perhaps the most remarkable scene in the film is when Manana, having newfound knowledge about her husband, starts singing a serenade. The shot, now focusing on her face rendered emotionless with pain, is an unforgettable display of suffering.
We can think of ‘My Happy Family’ as a sharp critique of conservative society – at times filled with drama, at times with bountiful irony. For instance, we see how Soso, who should be a strong head of the family according to tradition, is in fact still economically dependent, and living with his in-laws. Manana on the other hand, who is supposed to be weak and dominated, manages to build her own home and start leading an independent life. An exceptional scene depicting this contrast is the one in which Manana joyfully plants flowers on her balcony in the sunshine, while Soso sadly smokes a cigarette in the rain.
The ending of the film is somehow ambiguous and interesting. Will Manana and Soso turn over a new leaf? Will Manana confront him about his transgressions, and ever return to her old apartment? The answers to these questions are up to the viewers. The closing song, performed by a man and a woman, could foreshadow a form of reconciliation. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that captures the sinuosity of female agency, where strength and care invariably constitute each other’s shadow.
The film is streaming on Netflix since 2017.