Ashik Kerib: flat plot and hammy acting wreck ethnographic survey / travelogue of Azerbaijani culture

Sergei Parajanov and David Abashidze, “Ashik Kerib” (1988)

The last completed film by Georgian / Armenian director Sergei Parajanov before his death in 1990, “Ashik Kerib” is a sumptuous survey of the culture of Azerbaijan as it was from the 1500’s to the early 20th century. The film takes the form of a retelling of Russian author Mikhail Lermontov’s short story of the same name (which in Azeri and Turkish means “Unfortunate Lover”) and is performed as a children’s fairy-tale. Two young lovers, the minstrel Ashik and a rich trader’s daughter Magul-Megeri, pledge their love and wish to marry; unfortunately the girl’s father, greedy for a huge bride price, prevents the marriage from going ahead unless Ashik can cough up the wealth required in 1,001 days. During this period, Ashik has many adventures in faraway lands and undergoes one trial after another as he tries to raise the money. If he doesn’t get back in time with the bride price, Magul-Megeri’s mean old man will marry her off to the equally odious Kurshudbek. Can Ashik raise the money and return home in time to claim his love?

As with Parajanov’s previous films like “The Color of Pomegranates” and “The Legend of Suram Fortress”, the film’s presentation is rich and layered with many shots of still life (a jug on a rock against a mountain waterfall, Persian-style miniaturist portrait paintings, displays of jugs, cups and musical instruments) that demonstrate what everyday life was like for Azeri people or the rich and middle-class among them at least. Scenes are filmed at some distance from the actors to show off their cultural context which helps to explain why they think and behave the way they do; there are very few close-ups and many of those are head-and-shoulder shots. The effect is one of a series of moving dioramas which suit the episodic nature of the plot, broken up into many short chapters each revolving around one incident. Dialogue is minimal and serves mainly to advance the story. The musical soundtrack is nearly continuous throughout the movie and doesn’t match the action closely so some viewers may find the wailing singing annoying and shrill.

There are many outdoor scenes which give the impression of Azerbaijan as a semi-arid grassy country where horses and Bactrian camels seem to be the main animals used for transport. Urban life takes place in small towns or large villages of old stone buildings.

Aimed at children, the film often features histrionic acting by villains or those who threaten Ashik in some way. Villains are readily identified by their lurid make-up and hammy, buffoonish actions. The two lead roles are passive and make little effort to overcome the obstacles that separate them: things happen to Ashik and he suffers and despairs a great deal but the plot’s convolutions give him no opportunity to try to improve his fortunes. This is where the film founders: if it’s a fairy-tale, surely Magul-Megeri and Ashik should have some direct or indirect access to magic so they could help each other? Magul-Megeri could find a wise woman or magician to send a helpful dove to guide Ashik and keep him out of trouble, and that dove could convey communications between the two to keep each other’s spirits up and hold Kurshudbek at bay. The film already deviates from the original short story as it is: if Parajanov and Abashidze had followed it closely, the plot would end up as a remake of one of Parajanov’s other films in which a Romeo leaves his love to pursue fortune and ends up wealthy but forgets to return home and marry the girl pining for him.

As it is, the plot and Ashik wander from one struggle to another until time runs out and something has to be done to get Ashik back home. There’s very little sense of the wonder and enchantment that should have accompanied this otherwise interesting ethnographic survey of Azeri culture. Usually with films in which a hero must endure trials and tests of character in a fairy-tale narrative, the main character is seen to change into a nobler person and proves a worthy marriage partner. This doesn’t happen with “Ashik Kerib” and so in spite of the beautiful visual work and the good-looking lead actors, the film becomes just an exotic moving travelogue with some interesting still-life scenes but little else to hold the audience’s attention.

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