SET MAINLY in a rundown post-Soviet Georgian apartment, where an elderly woman, her daughter and granddaughter have been eking out a quiet living since the departure two years earlier of a relative to France, "Since Otar Left" is a small film of surpassing beauty and sadness. Yet its bittersweet flavor isn't artificial, but rather the product of the slow ripening of character.

Eka is the matriarch, a short, white-haired woman of unhurried gait, who spends most of her psychic energy waiting for the next contact with her beloved son, Otar, whom we never see, but whose chatty letters and staticky calls from Paris are her emotional sustenance. As played by Esther Gorintin -- the taxidermist's mother in the 2002 "Carnage" and an actress who resembles no one so much as Madame Souza from the animated "The Triplets of Belleville" -- Eka is the film's heart, its steady, if fragile, doddering center.

Eka's daughter -- and Otar's sister -- Marina (Nino Khomasuridze) is a bitter middle-aged woman whose resentment, quite probably because she clearly isn't her mother's favorite, is palpable. She seems, on one level, incapable of love, wishing aloud at one point that she were in love with the man she's sleeping with (Temur Kalandadze). Last but by no means least is Marina's daughter, Ada (Dinara Drukarova), a quiet young woman in her older teens or early twenties so full of simmering life that she's the obvious choice -- when bad news arrives from Paris about a fatal construction accident involving her uncle -- to begin drafting fake letters from Otar to her grandmother.

That's right, Granny is so friable that her heart might break in two if she knew the truth. Or so everybody thinks. But when Eka sells off her prized collection of French literature to finance a trip to France after she senses that something is not quite right about Otar's recent letters, her ability to handle the unanticipated exceeds everyone's expectations, including -- in this gorgeous little chamber piece about the dynamics between three women -- ours.

SINCE OTAR LEFT (Unrated, 103 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual references and a brief glimpse of partial nudity. In Russian, Georgian and French with subtitles. At Cinema Arts Theatre, Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.