Three features, a documentary, and a rare short showcase the peculiar pleasures of the late Russian director
“Surrealism,” “incitement to suicide,” and my favorite, “traffic in art objects leading to homosexuality,” all sound like respectable weapons in the modern-art arsenal. In the case of legendary director Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1993), they were grounds for fifteen years of forced inactivity and nearly five years of imprisonment in one of Russia’s many pre-glasnost hard-labor camps. What was it about this jovial, bearlike man that invoked the unending wrath of Russian censors? It could have been his abandonment of wife and children to live the unashamed gay life he’d apparently always craved. And then there are the films, a dozen features working such “troubling” territory as celebrations of Armenian (i.e., non-Russian) culture, a Dionysian (some would say delirious) approach to his material, a strict adherence to a no-linear-plot policy, and a general air of rapturous and whimsical indulgence in color and sound – hardly the stuff to further the revolution. Official reactions to the slew of hunky men – in one case a sexy young man transformed by Svengali Paradjanov from literal rough trade to stylized superstar – parading through the films in various states of undress have not come to light.
Paradjanov is being feted with the release of three of his most significant features on two DVDs courtesy of Kino on Video: The Color of Pomegranates on one disc, and The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib on another. Despite the intensity of his work and his tumultuous life, Paradjanov was not prolific, partly because he wasn’t allowed to be by meddlesome authorities. These two DVDs comprise half of his feature film output, the most notable omission being his most famous film, the 1964 Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which put him on the international cinema map.
Sympathetic response to this visionary’s work has always required an open mind and the ability to be transported by the filmmaker’s captivating imagery and grand-design ethnomusical soundtracks, which evoke both the richness of Georgian-Armenian folk music and the high-art sounds of the great Russian composers. For those who can find it hard to sit still for 90 minutes of feverish folktale-based tableaux, it might help to know that Tarkovsky said Paradjanov was the only modern Russian director he respected.
The Color of Pomegranates (1972) is considered the director’s masterpiece, but it’s also one of his most challenging works. Nominally a biography of Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova, the film opens with a series of striking tableaux vivant, most notably one in which the youthful Nova lies down in what looks like a concrete gully with seemingly endless books arranged around him, their pages fluttering fantastically in the breeze. Books are crucial in Paradjanov, not only because they contain and hold much of the world’s artistic history, but because much of his imagery is inspired by the ancient illuminated manuscripts that he always managed to obtain access to. (The church apparently liked him more than the government did.) Nova’s history is rendered as a kind of interiorized bildungsroman, tracing the boy’s progress from early bookworm to apprentice rugmaker to devotee of the female body. “I am the man whose life and soul are tortured,” reads a subtitle repeated throughout the film, but Paradjanov’s colorful vision of a rich culture in which every dress is a tapestry and every man a handsome devil is far more upbeat than the phrase suggests. Kino has done justice to this work with a solid transfer and a slew of extras. The latter include a rare 1965 short (10 minutes) directed by Paradjanov, Hagop Hoynatanian, and Ron Holloway’s loving documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem, running nearly an hour and containing essential interviews, photos, excerpts from the oeuvre, and drawings.
Paradjanov’s much-noted hubris is clear from the start of Pomegranates when he aligns himself with the Christian God by invoking the creation of the world. The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) is less grandiose though no less mesmerizing. Less episodic and more narratively minded (sort of) than the other film, Suram Fortress is an almost picaresque tale of a plebe who gets his freedom and sets off to buy that of his wife, a fortune-teller. The film pivots on the concept that the Georgian way of life, symbolized by the fortress, can only be saved if a young man is willing to be walled up inside it. This metaphor for a rich regional culture threatened by an oppressive dominant one probably was not lost on Paradjanov’s detractors, but the film, with its gorgeous Georgian landscapes and fantastic imagery, happily, has outlived its enemies.
Also on this disc is the director’s final film, Ashik Kerib (1988), dedicated to his late friend and compadre Andrei Tarkovsky, who also suffered tremendously at the hands of uncomprehending Russian authorities. Based on a story by Lermontov and shot in the Georgia/Azerbaijan area that was Paradjanov’s inspiration, the film is a typical fantasmagoria of folkloric imagery whose power is heightened immeasurably by an especially rich score of regional music. Ashik is a handsome but impoverished minstrel played by Yuri Mgoyan, whom Paradjanov rescued from a life of petty crime for this role. He must find “bride-money” to marry the daughter of a rich Turkish merchant. This simple plot gives Paradjanov plenty of room to play as Ashik encounters a series of tests in the classic heroic mold, and play he does in such unforgettable tableaux as a “wedding of the blind, deaf and dumb” at which Ashik’s music entrances the participants and a sultan’s house where Ashik’s playing sends the guards into pyrotechnic dance displays. Ashik’s search is an immersion into the transcendent beauty and power of folk culture, which Paradjanov fleshes out with vivid colors, elaborate costumes and headgear, and vibrant displays of music, dance, and movement. Even the simplest images show the triumph of nature over the temporal and the manmade, as when falling rose petals become a resonant substitute for the dowry of diamonds that Ashik cannot afford. Comparisons to other auteurs who have explored this specialized field, most notably Pasolini, do justice to neither. Paradjanov stands alone.
Some critics have seen Ashik Kerib as a parable for Paradjanov’s marginalization by the government, with the director himself represented by the hapless lute player wandering through a blasted landscape of lost souls. But this interpretation misses the celebratory, indeed transcendent quality of image and sound that are the film’s driving force. If Paradjanov was not essentially reconciled to the political abuse he suffered, it’s impossible to tell from Ashik Kerib.