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Why Sergei Parajanov and His Films Matter

December 22, 2015 | By

Sergei Parajanov is an auteur in the realm of cinema. Poetic, painterly and yet rooted deeply within the peripheries of the other high art forms, Parajanov presents us with masterpieces in Ashik Kerib, The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Colour of Pomegranates. A contemporary of the great Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov is unique and distinct in his cinematic sense and sensibilities. This essay looks at the timbre of Parajanov’s classics through the eyes of a poet.

Sergei Parajanov

Sergei Parajanov

Sergei Parajanov. Imprisoned. Respected – highly – by Andrei Tarkovsky. Was he really a homosexual? I don’t know. He was a threat to the Communist system. That can’t be disputed. Something Socratic about being arrested for purportedly corrupting the youth and on homosexual charges – trumped up or otherwise.

His films. His art. If you see Ashik Kerib, the protagonist is definitely a glorification of the homoerotic. One would seldom find a male as beautiful as the Ashik of the film.
I remember seeing Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors first. I’ll never forget the way he directed the camera, the way it captures the felling of a tree in the beginning. I’ll never forget the movie, although it was typically Russian, or rather, Georgian. I saw Ashik Kerib next. Then I heard that he died. My friend Satish who was crazier than I about him did a painting of him and wrote an article on him. I did too. Both our articles got published. It was my second piece that saw the light, as they say.

Many years later I met a genuine lover of film on a railway platform and offered to write an article on Parajanov for his magazine. He took me seriously and sent me copies of The Colour of Pomegranates and Parajanov’s last film co-directed with Dodo Abashidze. The Colour of Pomegranates had the same kind of magic as Shadows, but somehow the last one, The Legend of Suram Fortress, didn’t appeal as much to me.

I tried, but I couldn’t write about him. His images defied me. They couldn’t be spoken of. So I broke my word and did not send the article in. I still have the films. But my abdication has never stopped bothering my conscience. This is an attempt to set things right because I feel that I now have the requisite distance to write about him. I showed some of Parajanov’s paintings to an artist-friend of mine and he told me that they were reminiscent of Da Vinci’s. I showed sections of the film twice and got diametrically opposite views – once, highly appreciative, from a younger audience, once, negative – from an older audience.

But let me speak of his images and their flow and see where it leads and what you think of them both, when they are described to you in mere words.

I do not agree or disagree with his religious position – Orthodox – although Mikhail Bakhtin would have agreed. I agree only partly with his political or nationalist or ethnocentric views and his heavy foregrounding of culture. But when it comes to viewing and reading his films as  powerful signifiers I am forced to acknowledge him, forced to use but two words to sum it up – radical mastery. Of a unique kind. Of, I dare say, regardless of objections that may rise from any quarter, the “essential” kind, primarily made up of excitingly visual poetry.

Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan – these are three of the places he celebrates through three of his key films. The film Colour of Pomegranates deals with the life of Sayat Nova, an 18th century Armenian poet, whose poetry is characterized in the film by Parajanov quoting Valery Briusov, as one of “the greatest triumphs of the human spirit.” Parajanov tells us in the beginning itself that what he attempts is not a straightforward narration of the poet’s life and works but the creation of a cinematic or filmic equivalent for the uniqueness and beauty of his poetry. One remembers T.S. Eliot’s famous critical terms “objective correlative” and “unified sensibility” while watching the film. Parajanov works in a medium that can only appeal to two of our senses, the eye and the ear, but he gives us an impression that all our five senses have been fed along with our hearts, spirits, souls and minds. This list which includes the body by not naming it is not fortuitous. His is an attempt at holistic art, nonpareil.

For someone like me who has watched four of Parajanov’s major films, what remains challenging is the range and sweep of Parajanov’s unforgettable images. “I am he whose soul is tortured,” we hear repeatedly in The Colour of Pomegranates in the beginning, a line taken from Sayat Nova’s poetry. It captures the essence of Parajanov’s films. The line fits perfectly not only Sayat Nova’s ethereally anguished life but also Parajanov’s harrowing experiences.

What shapes and/or form would be the equivalent/s of a tortured soul?

Marichka in The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Marichka in The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Ivan’s face in The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a typical example of masterful casting. After the death of his loved one, he looks haggard and woebegone – ‘the very picture of misery.’ We see more about what Marichka meant to him in the crow’s feet around his eyes than in the scenes before, sorrow piling up on itself and making us feel its intense pangs. And the shots of Ivan in a tree plucking an apple, Ivan eating an apple and then soon after marrying another woman for whatever reason, be it sex or her will, haunts us too with their reference to the story of Adam and Eve, but with the whole thing given an unexpected twist in that the second woman is shown to be Eve here. Did Parajanov know about the legend of Lilith?

But it is in The Colour of Pomegranates that the images flow freely, like salt, stunning us with their grandeur.

  • Three fish, two dead, lying on a pale, plain background, but with one fish in the middle flopping around in agony, drawing its last breath with pain in this harsh world to tell the story of Shakespeare, inevitably.
  • A foot crushing a bunch of grapes, the red juice flowing from it like blood. Someone told me Madonna borrowed it in one of her videos.
  • A knife on a white cloth, stained with spreading red
  • Rapidly and rabidly fluttering pages of ancient manuscript on which is written poetry that is not decipherable to me

Shot after shot these are transfixing us, transforming us into thinking of the meaning of words like beauty, imagery, painting, “sculpting in time” and space, framing, composition, shapes, colour, form and life. These lead us into thinking of direction, the camera’s eye, movement and its startling absence, audio-visual ambiences, the language of film and the grammar of cinema and editing.

If Shadows is about first love and how true it can be, beautiful in its innocence and ghostly in its everlasting nature, The Colour of Pomegranates is about how hopeless love can be at times and also how impossible it can be. Ivan’s sexual initiation and awakening is beautiful, although heavily sensuous, when as a boy he plays with Marichka in the waters of a stream and they throw water at each other, both naked, he but a fresh adolescent and she little more than a girl. The play of light and shade in this section makes of their relationship exactly that; the play of love awakening into knowledge of its own glory and loveliness. It is different with/in Sayat Nova – the precocious boy who has already understood the power of words and images and the imagination and turned away from the stifling nature of religion – who sees the world in a lopsided artistic fashion and sees things others don’t – when he turns voyeur and watches his father being massaged and bathed, watches men bathe and finally watches a woman bathing.

In one of the most memorable shots in the history of film we are shown things from the boy’s perspective – we become the child-voyeur. What we see is a woman’s breasts – soap  and water  running over them like a pretty little waterfall and a shell covering one  of her nipples but we are both awe-struck  by the carved perfection of those breasts and made uneasy by the thought that formulates in our minds as we look alternately at them and the boy’s expression – that catching sight of these breasts is going to mark him as separate from all others because they belong to none other than his mother – and  this ‘marking’ is what is going to make him special.

The child grows up into a man but he embraces the word for beauty’s sake and not for the truth’s sake. He seems self -possessed or driven to do so out of his understanding of the subtexts of music and the colours of cloth-dye the women in those parts excelled in making. Parajanov uses images of half – opened, broken pomegranates to signify the complexity of Sayat Nova’s (and his) personality. Each object becomes for him a signifier he can sing poems about – of transcendental significance – his real object being perhaps to somehow forget the one unforgettable, ‘terribly beautiful’ sight of his childhood – Jocasta’s breasts.

The boy grows up into a man. He carries around with him a musical instrument that only an Armenian will recognize, their equivalent of the harp, the lyre and the sitar. The Axe of their space, the Armenian equivalent of the lute. It helps him sing and its round back looks like a woman’s breast codified by now into an eternal pattern. He has become a poet. He has to sing to a princess. She falls in love with him. He falls in love with her. It is the old/earlier story repeated, of hopeless and forbidden love. He cannot have her, she is too beautiful and too far above him in station. He is born to be the tragic poet par excellence, the object of his desire is like a deconstructed text, like every text, perennially deferring meaning, eluding his greedy grasping to arrive at its significance. The images continue to fall into the vortices of our eyes like rain on our favourite roses’ petals, blinding us with too much beauty.  They are no longer alone but coupled, tripled with theatrical tableaus and the kind of music that can only be called unearthly because we haven’t heard its sort before. The music of the Carpathian mountains thrills us in Shadows but Armenian music sounds eerily beautiful – a mix of Persian and Russian to me, that is indescribable. Parajanov goes for many lengthy single shots and the camera never moves, and his editing is of a rough kind but the effect is strange, it carries us into the past effortlessly – it never fails to transport us into his mind where shells and peacock’s feathers and precious stones and dyed cloth and rare shades of colours and shapely vessels mix together to remind us of a word in the name of another of his films – Arabesques. Arabesques of not only Pirosmani but pain that make us feel happy, somehow?

A still from Ashik Kerib

A still from Ashik Kerib

If I had seen The Legend of Suram Fortress first and only that I might have disliked Parajanov. His collaboration with Abashidze somehow fails to evoke in me the same feeling of awe I felt when I saw Shadows and Ashik and The Colour of Pomegranates, though the movie has an unforgettable story. The sources he draws from notwithstanding, his work, like that of all greats, including Shakespeare, is not even. In Shadows he is on familiar terrain but easily transcends the best. In Ashik he enters such a strange realm of excellence that even I don’t have the courage to follow him there by trying to describe in words the curious “spectacle” he serves up – it reminds me of Sergei Eisenstein but not at all a montage, so vastly different from anything I have ever come across that it defies verbal narration. A scene from it has haunted my poetic imagination – returning as an image I often write about – images of driftwood and a desert where tumbleweed flies aimlessly about in the shifting and rollicking sand and wind. I have not yet been able to conjure up a better metaphor for mere meaninglessness.

Till I saw the films of great directors viz. Seventh Seal & Through a Glass Darkly by Ingmar Begman, Sacrifice & Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky, the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Pasolini (whom Parajanov thought a film god and rightly so), The Marriage of Maria Braun by Rainer Fassbinder etc., I did not give much credence to the rumour that the audio-visual medium could be as powerful as the written word. However, after viewing these along with films like the ones crafted by Parajanov I began to have second thoughts about my basic premise. It seemed to me that a book could be written on comparing Tarkovsky and Parajanov that would have as much right to exist as George Steiner’s book on whether Tolstoy or Dostoievsky is the greater artist. I remember fighting with my girlfriend one day and to forget the sorrow I wrote several things sitting in the Public Library of Thiruvanathapuram, and one was a piece that was in praise of the Russian national character for producing maximalist works , how they belonged to a tradition I could only envy , an incomplete Russian cathedral made of giant bricks like the works of – and here I began to subversively include not only figures like Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Issac Babel, whose works broke out of the maximalist mode, but also  great film makers like Grigori Kozintsev who will be remembered for his magnificent King Lear and, of course, Tarkovsky and finally the non-Russian Russian Parajanov. It was to justify my own “love” of the minimalist/miniature and of film that I brought their names in.

But to return: The flow of his images.

The love affair–craven-and running riot in symbols and emblems and motifs, with masks and frozen bas-reliefs of living figurines galore. Who can describe the richness of these scenes? I would have to be a Keats to speak of Parajanov’s films. To describe with exactitude what he saw etched on the Grecian Urn, Keats had to be a visionary.

Having been separated from his lover, Sayat Nova goes to live in a monastery. It has nothing to do with being religious. It makes for the right kind of experience for one who has not been able to enjoy requited love. The chief bishop dies and is buried. The sect is the Armenian Orthodox church and the symbolism in the rituals is surrealistic and makes for rich tapestries. The boy who was defiant and wiped the blood of the sacrificial cock off his forehead when it was drawn on there in the shape of a cross by his father is now quite at ease in the old dispensation of the religious order. Maybe he always was, for both poets and the many religious sects and divisions and denominations of Christianity are word-centred. He see dreams of his father, dying, and his mother too and finally of “her.” Having become old, he has his most powerful dream yet, of invaders breaking the church down, of her again and finally of his death. The last comes true, telling us the invasion will too. But there is a clear indication that, like his poetry, his land with its curious mix of Islamic calligraphy and Armenian culture and Christianity will not yield to the new barbaric invaders’ creeds and ideology – whether Marxist or capitalist – but will survive and stay forever young in the hallowed memory of people like Parajanov and the poems of Sayat Nova.  From whence came this incredible movie and will come again, as indeed it has in history, Armenia’s resurrection. The invaders have been driven out. Strange are the games that destiny plays with the men and mice of this world.

A still from Arabesques of Pirosmani

A still from Arabesques of Pirosmani

My main theme here is Parajanov’s wizardry. Part of it lies in his ability to find sources that are translatable, flexible and malleable like gold. Like Jorge Luis Borges he creates anew from the shadows and works of his forgotten ancestors the material that he needs and can mold into great art in his cinematic medium, illuminating the politics and history of his time by reinterpreting them to get them to say what he wants to. Mikhailo Kotsyubinsky’s unforgettable love story set in the Carpathians, Sayat Nova’s poetry, Mikhail Lermontov’s poem that tells the story of a wandering lovelorn minstrel, an old Georgian folktale, Pirosmani’s  arabesques – in his hands they get metamorphosed into celluloid that people always end up comparing to poetry, dance, theatre, music, fine art, sculpture and painting. Although the world’s acceptance may mean nothing, of him the adage is true that a “prophet is not honoured in his own country, among his own people or by those in his family.” His films faced severe criticism in the USSR but kept winning award after award at every international film festival they were screened. Awards they richly deserve, as time testifies.

I remember the golden bowl, the light aimed like a spear at the cathedral’s roof and it caving in, the paintings on the walls, the man who when he was young looked like a Muslim and a girl but as he grew up had a face lined with sorrow, slightly long hair and a beard and a moustache reminiscent of Christ’s and the typical imagined, stereotyped ignoble Russian Tolstoyan peasant.  Colours never used before, shades of green and red and blue,  stylization, the eyes of the actors who are clearly only pretending to be the characters locking constantly with the camera, the unearthly wailing of the music, the symbolism that means too much and is oblique, obverse, indirect, surreal. But how can these things be explained, it has to be seen to be believed – along with the rough grainy look and feel of this period film, the camera’s odd non- movement, the rough editing – yes, no, I am repeating myself. I would not be able to write about Ashik Kerib either, except to say that it is a mix of Muslim and Christian imagery with the stress given to Islamic notions of beauty – in that, a bit Lermontovian. These films resist even the verbal magic of an advanced adept like myself.

I could write about Legend but it doesn’t interest me except for the Georgian element. I could write about Shadows. Let me write about truth and beauty and love and tie it up with Shadows to end.

Truth to tell, The Colour of Pomegranates and Ashik Kerib are not films I relate to with my heart, they have a cold, detached, desolate kind of beauty that appeals only to my intellectual side. The same isn’t the case, however, with Shadows.

Ivan and Marichka love each other deeply, with total and innocent abandon, as if theirs is the  only love on earth, but tragedy strikes and she dies. The grief stricken Ivan wanders around alone and has only one friend left, an idiot. Marichka comes back to haunt him. A woman who falls in love with Ivan’s handsome body gets him to marry her. He remains unhappy. Finally Ivan dies, is killed, in fact, fittingly, by his wife’s jealous lover, and we see him being reunited with the cause of his death, Marichka’s spirit. If ever a love story that praises eternal love has been shot with aching poignancy and nostalgic power it is this one. Starting from the muted red and brown tones of the beginning that makes us think the film is in black and white to its gradual unfolding into muted colour it fascinates us with Parajanov’s visions of how the camera should move. We are introduced into the mind and heart of Ivan, the parallel of which one generally sees only in a Dostoievsky story. This is a very difficult thing to try out in film. The movie has a typical Russian and Georgian feel to it, the background of the Carpathian mountains, the music, the poor folk of the land, the lovely women with their attractive garb, the dances and the epic feel all testify to Parajanov’s ability to belong to the great Russian tradition.

Why did the Communists find him so threatening? Because he reveled in and extolled the past. Revolutionaries know that it is dangerous to begin to understand the past. But artists know that the past is the only material we have at hand to work with. No one has worked with the past, whether of these now war-torn places and their rich cultures that he seems to know inside out that he brings into his films or the past of film itself, as well as Parajanov. That is hyperbole, it is true, but deep inside I still hold to what I wrote about Parajanov long ago – that he tried to raise film to the levels of religion, beauty, love, sex and truth and his failure, if failure it is, is one of art’s happiest successes.

The article was already published in a slightly different form here.

The opinions shared by the writer is his personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine. The writer is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article. The pictures used in this article have been provided by the author as reference material.

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