Stalin was probably Abuladze's main concern. Stalin's heritage used to be such a source of pride for much of the Georgian population that when Khrushchev denounced him in 1956 it caused heated demonstrations in Tbilisi that ended in a massacre. Repentance
was in some senses Abuladze's own way of digging up Stalin's corpse again as a kind of national atonement (hence the title). But Varlam is also largely based on another Georgian, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's associate who was directly responsible for many of the atrocities committed during the "Great Purge" and later continued to hold a very firm grip on Georgia. Most of the non-fantastical events that happen in the film are based on actual crimes committed by Stalin and Beria. In fact I think Abuladze claimed that everything depicted in the film was based on fact. Articles like this one
(spoilers therein) would certainly seem to support that.
I suppose it's obvious now that I'm also recommending it. I think it's pretty extraordinary and I placed it pretty high when we did our 80's lists a while back. As Zedz and Gregory have indicated, it's likely at the very least to leave a very strong impression on you, even if it confounds you or just plain irritates you. It certainly wasn't universally acclaimed, even if it seemed so when it came out. Paradjanov (a victim of far greater oppression than even most his censored colleagues) openly hated it and felt that in his obsession with a dead tyrant Abuladze ignored the fact that there were tyrants still at large in the world. Personally I disagree: I think Abuladze's hope was to prevent the celebrity of tyranny by reminding people about the crimes committed by people like Stalin and Beria. How well Abuladze went about this is of course a matter of debate -- Paradjanov also felt that by adopting a sense of black humor Abuladze was also making light of Stalin's atrocities, but the recorded reactions of audiences at the time (as in the article I linked to above) suggest that this was not the case for most people. And after watching a fair share of Georgian films it seems to me that this slightly absurd and somewhat cynical sense of humor is also partly a cultural thing (cf. Iosseliani).
Here's another nice article
from the time of its release, this one from the New York Times about Abuladze visiting the US for the film's premiere at Telluride.
Though you can read my comments on this matter in the other thread Gregory linked to, I'll reiterate here that if you end up liking Repentance
a lot you might want to consider looking into the other two Abuladze films Ruscico has released, The Plea
and The Wishing Tree
. The three films are generally considered to be something of an informal trilogy, though they fit together more thematically than stylistically. Ruscico has a fourth Abuladze DVD in the works, Magdana's Donkey
, which he co-directed with Rezo Chkheidze, but god knows when it'll be released. There are DVD listings on Ruscico's web site that have been "Coming Soon" for two years.