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Tini Zabutykh Predkiv, 1964
[Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors]

Bestayeva/NikolaichukShadows of Forgotten Ancestors has often been described as a Carpathian Romeo and Juliet - that is, if Romeo had the tenacity to live after his beloved's death. Sergei Paradjanov prefaces the tragic tale set in the Carpathian mountains as the land "forgotten by God and men", and from the austerity of the environment, it is evident that survival comes at a high price. In essence, the story is incidental to the observations of daily peasant life: the Orthodox order of mass, the rites of spring, the rhythm of the sickle cutting the fields. A young man, Ivan (Ivan Nikolaichuk), falls in love with Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), the daughter of the man who killed his father. As his mother's only surviving child, he leaves the village to work as a hired laborer to provide for her. However, before he can return to Marichka, she falls to her death in an attempt to rescue an errant lamb. The story then follows Ivan through his descent into despair, marriage to the sensual Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), and Palagna's inevitable betrayal.

Paradjanov's startling camerawork is mesmerizing, richly symbolic, and highly original. The tall, thin trees (shot upward), strips of cloth drying in the field, and Ivan's raft create an exaggerated linearity, a sense of continuity, that provides a paradox to the brevity of their existence, and also symbolizes the eternity of true love. Furthermore, the pervasive religious images in the film: Marichka's crucifix, the lamb grazing at a cross grave marker, Marichka's apparition against the window crossbrace, and The Pieta epilogue, are transfigurations of the purity of love. The color composition is bizarre and unnatural: pale, washed, glacial, almost monochromatic hues, infused with jarring touches of red and yellow (note the saturation of red at scene changes). The odd color palette suggests emotional incongruence - a love that cannot materialize - an unrequited passion. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a visionary film, an homage to the dignity of human struggle, and a testament to the inexorable power of destiny.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Sayat Nova, 1968
[The Color of Pomegranates]

troubadourThe Color of Pomegranates conveys the life of Sayat Nova, an Armenian troubadour, through lyrical, poetic, and beautifully constructed imagery. But how does one begin to describe the viewing experience of such an iconoclastic film? After all, Sergei Paradjanov is fundamentally an artist, experimenting with film as a moving canvas. In contrast to the minimalist, unembellished films of neorealism and cinema verite, The Color of Pomegranates reflects Paradjanov's interpretive, highly idiosyncratic view of cinema as a medium of high art where the sole reality lies in conveying emotional truth. Stripped of plot and character dialogue, what remains is an abstruse, fragmented visual narrative. Sayat Nova's life is presented in tableaux form, silent and rigid, composed of indelible, carefully constructed images: a young boy cultivating a love for literature, his apprenticeship at a rug manufacturer, his discovery of the female form at a local bath house. The film's repeated, monotonic opening passage from Sayat Nova's own writings: "I am the man whose life and soul are torture", resonates through the film, creating a sense of wandering and despair. There is a glimpse of a great love that ends in tragedy. Episodically, Sayat Nova's restlessness is reflected in his transitory vocations: a rug weaver, a court minstrel, a cloistered monk. Inevitably, The Color of Pomegranates paints a visually sublime and intoxicating portrait of a tortured artist. That the name of the artist is Sayat Nova, and not Sergei Paradjanov, is a revelation.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa, 1984
[The Legend of Suram Fortress]

UchaneishviliA traditional Georgian folktale recounts the story of a powerful medieval overlord who sought to fortify the most vulnerable territory within his vast and far-reaching empire, the remote kingdom of Surami, through the envisioned construction of the formidable Suram Fortress. However, the completion of the ambitiously conceived, large-scale fortification project soon proves to be elusive as the construction reveals its own peculiar and insurmountable challenge (and looming prospect of futile interminability) as the newly erected walls (using a quaint mortar conconction that is binded with stones, straw, and poultry eggs) continually collapse under their own crushing weight. Within this atmosphere of uncertain and looming enemy attack, arduous (and frustrating) toil, and economic austerity, a young peasant woman named Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili) - with a particular aptitude for divining the sex of an unborn child - is summoned to the castle against the trepidation of her lover, a court emissary and troubadour named Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) who believes that, as fate had befallen other maidens who were similarly issued such an ambiguous invitation, she will be indefinitely held captive and forced to serve the whims of their feudal lord. Nevertheless, Vardo's circumstances would seem to turn auspicious after endearing herself to the court by correctly predicting the princess' child and heir to the throne. Released from her servant duties by a grateful court, Vardo is soon reunited wither lover, only to be separated by fate once again when Durmishkhan sets out, at the prince's instigation, to seek his fortune. Cruelly discovering first-hand the inconstancy of the prince's shallow allegiance, the broken Durmishkhan is taken under the protective wing of a benevolent and nomadic merchant and goods trader named Osman-Aga (Dodo Abashidze), who introduces him to a brave new world of unlimited opportunity, leading him ever further away from the crumbling, impermanent walls of the Suram Fortress and his beloved, heartbroken Vardo.

Filmed in the aftermath of 15 years of artistic censorship in the Soviet Union (and following what would prove to be the filmmaker's final release from prison in 1983 after a protracted series of revolving door sentences on a litany of dubious state charges), The Legend of Suram Fortress is a richly textured, inimitably iconoclastic, startlingly vibrant, and elliptical yet poetic and intrinsically cohesive tale of sacrifice, captivity, and the fickle mutability of fate. Rooted in the traditional iconography of Byzantine art, Paradjanov's visual aesthetics similarly incorporate rigid framing, frontal portraitures, still life arrangements, voluptuous ornamentation, and distanced (and alienating) long shots that capture symmetric, but physically contrasting elongated forms (most notably, in the crane shot parallel geometry of wooden caskets and hanging handcrafted rugs) that paradoxically juxtapose vast, open spaces with dark interiors (the claustrophobic wedding chapel and the soothsayer's primitively furnished home), confined structures (the walls of Suram fortress), and historically recurring episodes of human bondage (Osman-Aga's recounted tale of captivity in his youth that parallels Vardo's earlier imprisonment and forced servitude). Using a culturally beloved ancient tale as an elegantly simple, but deeply personal metaphor for spiritual imprisonment, exile, and martyrdom, Paradjanov distills the narrative into a sequence of elliptical and densely layered compositions that interweave primitive, folkloric, mythologic, (Eastern Orthodoxy) religious, and (sociopolitical) allegorical imagery into a somber and pensive, yet resilient and affirming visual tapestry that indelibly capture the complex, often bittersweet panorama of personal travail and enduring human legacy.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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