Search This Blog

Followers

Blog Archive

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sergei Paradjanov | სურამის ციხისა (The Legend of Suram Fortress)


a good deed does vanish without a trace
by Douglas Messerli
 

Vaja Gigashvili (writer, based on a folk-tale by Daniel Chonkadze), Sergei Paradjanov and Dodo Abashidze (directors) სურამის ციხისა (The Legend of Suram Fortress) / 1984

Sixteen years after the making of his previous film, Sergei Paradjanov was able to return to cinema. The intervening years, when he was held in a prison, could never be recaptured, as Paradjanov himself proclaimed; yet the amazing work that followed, which, although it might be read as somewhat autobiographical, demonstrates no rancor or even bitterness. The lightness and beauty of both story and landscape is of a piece with his The Color of Pomegranates (1968) and Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964). Although The Legend of Suram Fortress is more  narratively expressive than his highly abstract 1968 film, Paradjanov continues in this work to develop a poetic cinema that, in this case, alternates between scenes of narrative action with tableaux vivants, highly theatrical dances and high-wire antics that remind one, at times, of Kabuki theatre. Paradjanov’s world, as Richard Brody wrote in a 2010 New Yorker review, has strong links to the early days of filmmaking, combining as he does “the Lumière brothers’ painterly wonder at the artistic possibilities of mere recording with Georges Méliès’ revelry in the medium’s power to depict the imaginary, the invisible, the impossible. By leapfrogging back, over the methods of the classical cinema, to the ancient, he leapt ahead into an audacious modernism.” I would suggest, rather, he brought film into postmodernism.

     After having centered his first two works on Ukrainian and Armenian culture, the director chose for his third film a beloved Georgian folk-tale, focusing his work on Georgian symbols and landscape. Freed by his master as a serf, Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) visits his lover, Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili/Sofiko Chiaureli), to request that she perform a dance with him before the local chieftan, explaining that afterwards he will go on the road in order to make enough money to buy her freedom. Vardo, however, is highly troubled by his decision, insisting that she will never see him again, a prophecy that, unfortunately, comes true, and results in the tragedy at the center of the tale.

     Even as he begins his travels, bad luck prevails, as the horse given to him by his previous master is demanded to be returned, forcing Durmishkhan to travel by foot. At one point he encounters a caravansary of Islamic merchants, headed by Osman Agha (Dodo Abashidze), who takes a liking to the boy and, after hearing his story, tells his own tale of how as a serf he and his mother were made to take up a yoke like oxen by his cruel and often drunken master. His mother dies in harness, and the young Osman Agha (born Nodar Zalikashvili) flees his owners, joining up with a caravan, and renouncing his Christian faith to become a Muslim. Awarding Durmishkhan a beautiful robe and a horse, Osman Agha suggests the young man join the caravan as his partner. When the young man becomes overwhelmed by his elder’s generosity, Osman Agha proclaims, “A good deed does not vanish without leaving a trace.”

     Becoming a successful merchant, and himself converting from Christianity, Durmishkhan marries a beautiful girl, who soon after gives birth to a son, Zurab (Levan Uchaneishvili), who ultimately grows  into manhood.

      Meanwhile, seeking out her lost lover and grieving over the events of her life, Vardo visits an aging fortuneteller, who is near death. In her sorrow, Vardo determines to replace the fortuneteller and soon gains notoriety throughout the region.

     Osman Agha, who has had a vision his erring ways, returns to Georgia, giving up nearly all his possessions in penance for having abandoned his faith, and leaving his business to Durmishkhan. When Durmishkhan undertakes another long voyage back into Muslim territory, his son remains in Georgia with  Osman Agha.

      War between the Christians and the Muslims is brewing, and the Georgians, protected by large fortresses throughout most of the country, are fearful because of their vulnerability to attack at Suram, since that fortresses’ walls have crumbled every time they have attempted to build them up. Determined to rebuild the Suram Fortress once again, the Czar sends emissaries to the Vardo, the Fortuneteller, to tell him how to create permanent walls.

      Refusing to speak to the emissaries as a group, Vardo sends away all but one, the handsome Zurab. The Fortuneteller explains, through metaphor, that the cement must be mixed with the body of blue-eyed young man, and, recognizing that person as himself, Zurab allows his body to be bricked up within the wall. The fortress stands, saving his country and the Christian faith.

      As the film ends, Vardo returns to the wall, explaining that she has not acted out of  revenge but out of necessity, for Zurab, in her way of thinking, was also her son.

      That final incident gives the story a strange dimension that it would not otherwise have. In embracing the boy as her son as well, Vardo has interlinked her life to the life of others in a way that suggests a commonality among peoples. She has, in a sense, converted a story that might be read as a struggle between individuals and rulers—an issue at the center of both Durmishkhan’s and Osman Agha’s tales—into a myth in which the communal survival outweighs the individual life. And, accordingly, we see Zurab’s act of self-immolation less as an act of heroism than it is a societal demand, a death borne not out of a personal decision but a determination of a social order.

      Without making too much of this, it is easy to read Zurab’s entombment within the walls of Suram Fortress—an burial aided, strangely enough, by Zurab’s beloved teacher, Osman Agha—as a metaphor of Paradjanov’s own imprisonment. It is as if the director’s society has insisted upon the spiritual death of one of their most beautifully vital figures, had required the death of art itself. Yet, in giving us this new film, Paradjanov has been resurrected, returning to form with another spectacular vision. It is difficult, in the end, not to read Osman Agha’s maxim as a statement about the director himself, for surely good deeds, in my estimation, describe Paradjanov’s four major works of art.

Los Angeles, November 17, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment