Alexander Nevsky: a well-made though not brilliant propaganda film about a Russian mediaeval hero

Sergei Eisenstein, “Alexander Nevsky” (1938)

Unashamedly patriotic and stirring action-movie propaganda for the masses and the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin at the time of release, this historical fiction drama recreates one of the two battles fought by the 13th-century Russian hero Alexander Nevsky that determined his future career as a prince and politician: the 1242 battle against and defeat of the crusading Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire on the frozen Lake Peipus which now forms part of the border between Estonia and Russia. The other significant battle which Nevsky fought and after which he was surnamed – the 1240 battle against Swedish forces on the Neva river near present-day St Petersburg – is mentioned at the beginning of the movie. “Alexander Nevsky” is straightforward in its narrative, starting with a Mongol ambassador visiting Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) and offering him a position with the Mongols’ Golden Horde which was in charge of Moscow at the time. From there the film hops to the Teutonic Knights’ take-over of the city of Pskov near Lake Peipus where they massacre the population. The Knights march towards Novgorod city where the aristocrats and wealthy traders decide to surrender to the Knights to avoid losing their riches. Nevsky then rallies the common people of Novgorod to resist the foreigners. Interwoven with these events is a sub-plot about two warrior friends, Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrey Abrikosov), who are dead keen on marrying the demure and beautiful girl Olga (Vera Ivashova) who likes them both. She sweetly worms her way out of being forced to choose between her suitors by telling them she will only marry the braver of the two in battle.

The battle against the enemy on the frozen lake (the Battle on the Ice) takes up half an hour of the film’s running time and can be interesting to watch as soldiers seem to hack aimlessly and in all directions and there are very few scenes of stagey-looking stand-offs between individuals of opposing sides. Editing, sometimes quick, with a view to portraying the fighting from different points of view – some shots are close up, others are at a distance or from a bird’s-eye point of view – ensures the constant tussling never gets boring. Scruffy Russian soldiers hack with axes and run about here and there while the more disciplined white-clad Teutonic knights charge as ordered and the foreign cavalry, infantry and archers work together as a machine. Fear not: Nevsky does use a strategy of dividing his forces into three groups to surround the invaders on three sides. As the fight progresses, some of the Russians are exhausted and are felled by lances or blows from the enemy; there isn’t much gore but the fighting is as realistic as Eisenstein dared to go at the time. The horseback fighting scenes look a little cartoony and have the style of 1920’s-era silent film as music often plays over these scenes and the action is quick and abrupt. When the camera remembers to focus on Nevsky himself in the heat of fighting (which isn’t much actually), he’s filmed from the waist up striking with his sword at unseen enemies but not pursuing them on horseback or helping his fellow warriors fend off attacks.

Keeping in mind the circumstances in which Eisenstein made this film – he was under suspicion of disloyalty for having worked in Hollywood and Mexico in the early 1930’s, socialising with painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and writer Upton Sinclair among others, with nothing to show for his efforts – viewers will understand “Alexander …” isn’t as experimental as some of Eisenstein’s other films and is made in a way that glorifies its main character as a god-like folk hero who can do no wrong and which elevates the defenders of Novgorod as heroic yet ordinary people who, given the right kind of leadership, can do extraordinary things. The message behind the portrayal of the Russian side becomes obvious: common people have potential to be heroes but only under Communist leadership and specifically Stalin’s leadership can that potential be put to work and fulfilled. As for the Teutonic Knights, in spite of their white garb (a duplicitous ploy), they are dehumanised by their armour and helmets which cover the entire face and body and sprout talons, antlers and devilish horns. They behave as cogs in a well-oiled war machine which further emphasises their lack of humanity. On conquering Pskov, they are nasty enough to throw little kids onto flaming pyres. Foot soldiers for the enemy wear steel helmets typical of what German soldiers wore in the later part of World War 1 and which they were to wear again in World War 2. The enemy forces are led by the Grand Master who resembles a twisted, demonic version of the fair-haired, square-jawed Nevsky and receive blessings from the Roman Catholic Church whose representatives are shown as sinister and fanatical.

Remarkably given Eisenstein’s need to ingratiate himself with the Stalinist government, the film shows the tragic side of war in which bodies of both sides are strewn over the snowy ground and women search for husbands, fathers and sons and mourn their dead. Although on second thoughts this display isn’t that remarkable as Russian portrayals of war have traditionally called attention to the carnage and tragedy of war and the sorrow of families whose men have died. The film also makes a point of showing Nevsky as a merciful and just hero who pardons and frees the foot soldiers who are assumed to have been drafted against their will into the Teutonic Knights’ army. The knights themselves and their leaders are held for ransom but Nevsky throws a Russian, Tverdilo (Sergei Blinnikov), to vengeful crowds for betraying Pskov to the enemy. Again the message here is ordinary people as a group are basically good and potentially heroic but they can be led astray by the wrong sorts of leaders (read: rich capitalists, self-styled aristocrats and their allies in anti-Communist governments who think only of their own material comforts and would sell their mothers and grandmothers for more wealth) and only someone like Nevsky who loves his mother country Rus is the ideal leader.

Character development as such is non-existent: Cherkasov as golden boy Nevsky stays in heroic mode throughout (which means his end scene where he urges people to celebrate is hilarious, he is so strait-jacketed in the stereotype) and the love triangle sub-plot doesn’t quite work as it should in spite of the best efforts of Okhlopkov and Abrikosov as the suitors who are brave and heroic in battle but comic and awkward in love. Olga remains modest throughout the film and hardly demonstrates much passion for either suitor and Gavrilo himself spends much of his screen time hardly conscious. Okhlopkov puts in the best acting as a heroic fighter who manages to escape death, as a near-buffoon and as an honest suitor who admits he wasn’t the brave one in battle and nearly gets scolded by his mum.

The rousing music by Sergei Prokofiev fits in well with the sequencing of scenes and encourages the rise and fall of tension and emotion throughout the movie. For this reason, the movie is best seen in its 1995 re-recorded edition on DVD or in a cinema environment where the sound quality is good and consistent. A live orchestra playing the music soundtrack as the film screens is a bonus.

Not a brilliant piece of film-making but “Alexander Nevsky” will be of some interest to Russian history buffs and film-makers who need to know how to stage and film battle scenes in a way that retains audience attention and interest.

Stalker: immersive film of beauty and ugliness, self-doubt and renewal of faith

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Stalker” (1979)

For Western audiences used to fast action science fiction movies, “Stalker” is a very slow-paced post-apocalyptic mover with a barebones plot that symbolises humanity’s search for hope and faith. In a future world devastated by war, a man (Alexander Kaidanovsky) known only as the Stalker works as a guide taking people through a territory called the Zone in his country. The area is actually off-limits to the public and heavily guarded and fortified and both the Stalker and his wife (Alisa Freindlich) know his work is illegal – he has been imprisoned before. The reason for taking people through the Zone though is to reach an area called the Room where entrants will find their deepest wishes fulfilled. So the Stalker – we’ll call him S for convenience – continues doing his risky work in spite of the wife’s pleas and anger. At the film’s opening, S is preparing already to meet two new clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), at a bar. This part of the film unfolds slowly: the opening scenes, done in sepia tints, are much like early 1920’s expressionist silent films in their close focus on still objects in S’s room. The deliberate use of sepia and not colour calls attention to the drab, impoverished surroundings in which S’s family lives and S makes his living.

Entering the Zone is fairly quick if tricky – the trio must evade guards on motorcycle and in a Land Rover – and the men then ride an open railway carriage into the heart of the Zone. The landscape changes from bombed-out ruins and mud tracks to a lush and verdant paradise where abandoned buildings are scattered here and there. The filmstock changes from sepia tones to colour to emphasise the men’s crossing from reality to a place of non-reality. Normal laws of physics apparently don’t apply in the Zone and S advises his clients to follow him and do exactly as he says to avoid the invisible dangers that surround them. He tests routes through the Zone with metal nuts that he throws with slings. While they advance towards the Room, the men have philosophical discussions and reveal why they want to visit the Room. The Writer (W) needs new inspiration for his work and the Professor (P) wants to make a discovery that will win him a Nobel Prize. Sometimes in conversation S refers to his mentor, a previous stalker called Porcupine, who himself entered the Room, came into a lot of money and then hanged himself.

They walk through fields, go through a long dark tunnel and travel through a chamber called the “meat mincer” where long ago, Porcupine’s poet brother died. On reaching the entrance to the Room, P reveals his reason for coming is to blow up the Room with a bomb in his knapsack to stop the general public from hearing about it and clamouring to visit to fulfill their desires which more often than not might be base and selfish. W, who has been skeptical about the Zone and the Room for much of the journey, accuses S of exploiting people’s hopes and dreams.Quarrelling and fisticuffs follow during which the reason that Porcupine’s brother died in the mincer is revealed.

“Stalker” doesn’t seem much like a science fiction film at all though it is based on a novella written by two brothers, Boris and Arkay Strugatsky, who are famous in Russia for writing science fiction stories and novels, some of which have been adapted to film. In its early sepia-toned scenes, the film resembles a war movie with film noir elements inserted, thanks to the style of cinematography used which emphasises sharp contrasts of light and shadow to the extent that darkness may frame shots, and textures of walls, detritus on floors and scum in water are readily noticed. The camera often operates from behind a wall or a structure, peering into a scene where action is occurring. Scenes are very prolonged so as to draw viewers into the action, the mood and the atmosphere: an extended scene of rainfall through an open ceiling while the men sit on the floor just outside the Room conveys their indecision and perhaps a loss of belief and faith in themselves and what the Room may hold. When the camera moves, it often tracks slowly, forwards or backwards in the tunnel scenes; around actors close-up, showing off their haggard profiles; or upwards over objects and relics buried in mud or shallow putrid water. The film seems to meditate on a notion of a lost civilisation and religion whose knowledge and wisdom can never be brought back.

The men and their journey may be symbolic in themselves: W and P represent the artistic, creative aspect and the scientific, rational aspect of humanity while S represents the spirtual impulse and belief in faith that bridges creative imagination and down-to-earth investigation and materialism. The journey can be interpreted in different ways: it could be a journey from the conscious world – the one outside the Zone – into the subconscious, represented by the Zone. The invisible dangers in the Zone that force S and his clients to improvise their route through the tunnel and the mincer represent inner complexes such as phobias and repressed memories that prevent us from tapping into our subconscious for inspiration and purpose to life. P’s plan to bomb the Room might represent some individuals’ denial or desire to control what they see as their irrational impulses; the possibility that he may be working for the tyrannical government that rules his society might suggest that governments desire to control what people think and feel. W’s skepticism could reflect a loss of faith and belief in one’s abilities: at one point in the film he admits he hates writing and rants about the culture of criticism in society and how too often it seeks to pull down talented if eccentric people to the same level rather than judge and improve the quality and worth of their artistic output. The journey through the Zone might also be interpreted as a flight or escape from the struggle and pain of life: shallow ponds of water and mud in parts of the Zone have religious icons and syringes buried in them, showing the ways in which people try to cope with problems in their lives. Incidents throughout the journey which include P’s search for his knapsack containing the bomb suggest that W may be right about S: that S does manipulate people’s hopes and beliefs for personal gain and so in a sense S represents organised religion that manipulates people’s desire to come close to God through rituals and prayers that lose meaning over time. Or perhaps the Zone is simply a bridge between life and death and S is its psychopomps: an ominous black wolf-like dog appears in the Zone and befriends S. Maybe the Room itself is irrelevant and the journey through the Zone and what S’s clients get out of it is the important thing. Viewers are free to interpret what they see depending on where they are coming from in terms of life experience and knowledge.

Significantly S loses his faith in himself and in his life’s purpose but redemption is unexpectedly at hand in the form of his crippled child Monkey who, though deformed by the Zone’s influence, also displays an unusual psychokinetic talent. This suggests that what the Zone and Room represent can always be found around us or within us in spite of limitations we have and people don’t have to rely on external phenomena or travel to places to find creativity, inspiration or purpose in life. The Zone then doesn’t really exist as a physical phenomenon and in that form it is a figment of S’s imagination to give him a reason to live and to enable him to cope with the problems of daily life.

Actors Kaidanovsky, Solonitsyn and Grinko play their parts well: they are minimal in their movements, speech and actions but convey a wide range of emotions as they are forced to admit their real reasons for entering the Zone and wanting to enter the Room, and through their conversations and arguments discover, gain or lose something in themselves that radically changes their lives forever. The only piece of acting that’s overdone and irrelevant to the film is the frenzy S’s wife goes into when S leaves to meet W and P in the bar. This is one of a few flaws in the film; other flaws include the concept of the “mincer” which doesn’t come across on screen as very frightening or frightening enough that it could kill someone. The music by Edward Artemev is a bit of a mishmash of orchestral music, some ambient and strings influenced by Russian and Middle Eastern music styles and for a movie like “Stalker”, really needs its own identity. The suggestion that religious belief must underpin creative and scientific endeavour may be too facile given that S is revealed as a flawed priest or prophet conducting a pointless ritual.

At times depressing and uplifting, ugly and beautiful, this film is worth watching at least once and preferably a few times to immerse oneself in its atmosphere and scenes of post-industrial decay and of nature reasserting itself among dilapidated factory buildings and tunnels still filled with pools of polluted water and spilt chemical toxins. Tragically several people associated with “Stalker”, including Tarkovsky himself and Solonitsyn, died of cancer-related conditions which may have been caused in part by exposure to pollutants in the places where the film was made.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest: thoughtful low-budget sci-fi film about how humans and other intelligent beings can co-exist

Marek Pestrak, “Pilot Pirx’s Inquest” / “Test Pilota Pirxa” / “Doznanie Pilota Pirksa” (1979)

A joint Polish-Estonian production, this low-budget movie about a space trip that nearly ends in tragedy examines the theme of how humans and human-like robots might co-exist if the robots, made to serve humans, realised they were superior to their masters in some ways. A corporation that manufactures intelligent androids is keen to begin mass production but meets resistance from the public and governments. It is proposed that a small crew of humans and androids be sent on a mission to place two probes in the rings of Saturn: a simple enough job but the purpose of the mission is to observe the behaviours and interactions between the humans and robots. Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitski) is selected to head the mission. He refuses at first but changes his mind and accepts the role after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. During the mission, some members of the crew including crew physician Tom Novak (Alexander Kaidanovski) confide in him and reveal their identities as either human or robot and insinuate that other members may not be human. Pirx isn’t sure who’s telling the truth and starts feeling a little paranoid about what’s happening around him on the ship Goliath. Still he’s determined to find out who is human and who is not, figuring that knowing who is which is critical to the mission’s success. In the meantime a rogue member of the crew carries out small acts of sabotage on the ship and sends Pirx a recorded warning and threat which Pirx plays. When it’s time to insert the probes, the Goliath goes wildly off course through the ring belt, the ship is forced to accelerate suddenly and the humans on board face death from being turned into schnitzels from the incredible G-forces the Goliath encounters.

The special effects are uneven and often elementary to the extent of appearing cartoonish but they are adequate for the purposes of the film which gives the impression of being “hard science fiction” with its emphasis on scientific realism. There are just enough effects to make the society credible as scientifically and technologically advanced and at the same time a society we can recognise as ours. It’s as if the movie takes place in an alternate 1970s where the spending priorities of governments and corporations were different enough that some areas of robotics and cybernetics developed faster than they did in our 197os, and so the parallel Earth got androids and we didn’t. The world in “Test Pilota Pirxa” otherwise looks no different than what ours looked like over thirty years ago and the film itself now appears as a fictional historical drama.

The acting is low-key and straight with Desnitski dominating the bulk of the movie’s scenes. He underplays his role as do all the other actors in a film heavy with dialogue whose sole purpose is to push the plot and explore the human-versus-robot theme. As Novak who reveals his robot identity early on, Kaidanovski impresses in a minimalist, subdued way as a being who understands little of human nature and its ways yet is keen to help Desnitski. Interestingly his character and another robot voice their hope that Desnitski’s opinion of robots will be negative so that their makers can’t go ahead with mass production, otherwise the robots that already exist will lose their individual identities and won’t be able to exult in their special abilities which help form those identities. No point in being an Übermensch if you have so many millions of clones like you who can do the same things you can do; you would just feel like … well, you would just feel like yet another machine-cog in a vast network of machine-cogs.

The music soundtrack by famous Estonian holy minimalist composer Arvo Part is not impressive: it’s a mix of conventional orchestral formal compositional music, spider-like organ music that almost sounds a little electronic and some near-futuristic percussion rhythms and beats.

The plot’s resolution suggests that co-existence between humans and robots will always be ambivalent. Trying to second-guess what robots might be thinking and why they might do certain things and not others will be a major human preoccupation. As long as human and robot natures are kept separate with humans allowed to be irrational and robots restricted to acting logically and rationally, humans will always be able to control robots. Not a very satisfactory conclusion to reach; how human and robot natures will remain separate is never explained. The relationship between humans and technology already is a dynamic one in which technological advances and breakthroughs force us to change and re-evaluate our reliance and dependence on machines constantly so the same would be expected of human and android interactions.

The film can be slow and doesn’t really start until halfway through once the Goliath blasts off. The early half of “Test Pilota Pirxa” plays a little like a straight spy thriller. Once we’re in space and Desnitski begins questioning the crew, the paranoia and the tension start to increase. The climax isn’t especially dramatic and no, it doesn’t actually come when the rogue member’s identity is revealed and he meets a just punishment – it comes much later after Pirx’s court case, in which he is prosecuted for having endangered his crew during the mission, ends.

As is, “Test Pilota Pirxa” could have done better in its investigation of human-android interaction and whether humans and androids can live together amicably. It takes for granted that robots will always be logical and there will be large-scale human resistance towards them; this attitude wouldn’t necessarily exist in real life. Much depends on what the robots are designed to do and how generalised or specialised we humans want them to be. At least the film treats its audiences as intelligent and able to consider its concepts. The ambiguous conclusion suggests a reluctance on the film-makers’ part to commit to a definite opinion as to whether co-existence is possible and if so, can be successful; what could be implied instead is a plea for tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude.

 

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.

Viy: Gothic fairy-tale horror film of Cossacks and seminarians threatened by witches, vampires and demons

Georgiy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, “Viy” (1967)

A rare 1960s Soviet film in the horror genre, “Viy” is more Gothic fairy tale than a straight horror film, due to its close adaptation of the original short story by 19th-century Ukrainian / Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Yet the film itself has the look of many horror movies made in the West at the same time with lots of colour, some excellent photography and a staged look to the sets. What makes this movie different from contemporary horror films is that the story is steeped in the culture of the people and time from whom and which Gogol was inspired to write his story. The setting is in rural Ukraine some time in the 1300’s or 1400’s when Slavic-speaking people settled in the eastern and southern parts and inherited customs and folkways from people already living there that became the basis for Cossack culture. An Orthodox seminary breaks up for holidays and the students walk to their homes: three of them decide to take a short-cut across some fields but get lost. One student, Khoma (Leonid Kravulyov), stays at a farmhouse and meets an old witch there who tries to ride him like a horse; he beats her severely and runs away home. Later he is contacted by his seminary to be told that he must say prayers for a Cossack chieftain’s dying daughter (Natalia Varley). He is forced to travel to the village where the chieftain and his family live and discovers to his dismay that the girl is not only now dead but may be the incarnation of the old witch. The chieftain compels Khoma to stay in the village and say prayers for three nights for the girl who specifically requested the young man’s presence before her death. During his stay, Khoma gets drunk, acts stupid and tries to escape but the chieftain and his servants make sure that every night for three nights running Khoma is in the dilapidated church next to the young woman’s bier reading and chanting prayers.

The first half of the film builds up steadily to the moment when Khoma’s three-night ordeal begins; there isn’t much to attract people looking only for horror but for parents and children watching together, the scenes of past peasant and religious life in a faraway country will be of interest. The character of Khoma is clearly established: he’s young and not particularly devout, and he likes to drink and have a good time with the other seminary students. By the time he starts his nightwatch, viewers already have a clue his faith in God is shaky and there’s a good chance he won’t last the three nights. The villagers look up to him and call him “philosopher”, the chieftain is more suspicious of him but insists on his presence as the daughter had asked for him by name. The teachers at the seminary treat him as a bit of a fool. Apart from Khoma, everyone else plays support but the film is all about a test of one fallible man’s character and faith when surrounded by evil. Kravulyov perhaps looks too healthy and robust to play a fragile, naive youth but his portrayal of Khoma as perhaps not too bright and very out of his depth in the real world away from the shelter of the seminary is very good.

And what evil there is, in the second half of the film – the special effects might not be great by the standards of horror films made outside the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the 1960s but they’re adequate for “Viy”: the girl’s coffin flies through the air in circles, giant hands emerge from the walls and floors and deformed creatures literally crawl out of the woodwork to menace Khoma. They cannot breach the circle of chalk he has drawn around himself so they call for Viy, the biggest and most evil demon of all, to break through the magic protection sustained by Khoma’s rapidly fading courage and confidence. Some of the acting probably needs to be more overdone, the demon make-up and costuming are at once hokey and scary, and Viy does look like a laughable carnival freak but the demon attack on Khoma is truly frightening though not at all gory. The animated skeletons and a close-up of a cute bristling monster weasel are major highlights. The filming method used in the horror scenes is outstanding with the camera continuously circling around Khoma or the flying coffin to create a sensation of delirious fear, dizziness and helplessness.

Apart from the use of special effects and the constantly rotating camera during the nightwatch scenes, the cinematography isn’t very remarkable though it does show the colour and flavour of rural Ukrainian life of several hundred years ago very well. The aerial riding scene is good with aerial photographs of lakes and forests whizzing by in the background behind the witch and Khoma to suggest the couple’s speedy flight. The music soundtrack by Karin Khachaturyan is notable with very screechy violin strings in parts and softer, more bell-like tones in other parts.

Viewers will note a sexual subtext to the story: the witch’s ride can be read as a metaphor for seduction or rape and the chieftain himself suspects Khoma of having had sexual relations with his daughter. He knows Khoma is poor and tempts him with the promise of a thousand gold coins in payment if the young man can sit through the three nights with the girl’s corpse so the night-watch is as much a test of his self-control and honesty as it is a test of his religious faith. Perhaps if the film-makers had deviated from the original short story during the horror scenes and allowed the witch to try to seduce Khoma and tempt him with pleasure mixed with terror, the film might have become an artistic work in its own right that appeals to all audiences and not simply a retelling of a story with fairy-tale elements.

There aren’t many horror films that mix horror with dark fantasy, folk-tale elements and an examination of human nature and superstitious cultures, and put them all in a world that’s at once ordinary yet fantastic enough that witches, vampires, demons and werewolves can live there and “Viy” remains a good example of what’s possible with that kind of fusion.

Amphibian Man: hodge-podge of science fiction fantasy, action, doomed teen romance and anti-capitalist commentary

Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennady Kazansky, “Chelovek-Amfibiya” aka “Amphibian Man” (1962)

An unusual science fiction / fantasy / romance of a doomed love affair combined with a love triangle and a bit of clumsy anti-capitalist commentary, this film was a hit with Soviet audiences in the early 1960s on first release. It still looks good for its age half a century later: the very faux-Mexican setting looks quaintly historic as though the events of the film took place in a peri0d much earlier than 1962 when it was filmed. The cinematography is very good with a number of shots throughout the movie taken at unusual angles or from characters’ points of view and there is an emphasis on displaying underwater scenes as bright-blue, beautiful and benign even when there is a shark lurking about. The young lead actors are stunning to look at and the camera often focusses on their beautiful features: even the villain is extraordinarily handsome in a moody way. The acting is at least natural if not particularly outstanding and even a bit wooden and amateurish.

All characters are very much stock stereotypes and the actors deviate little from those stereotypes. Medical scientist Dr Salvatore (Nikolai Simonov), the idealistic “mad scientist” of the piece, has a son who once suffered an incurable lung disease so the father implanted gills in the child’s body somewhere to save his life. The boy Ichtyander, the “monster” naif, is able to breathe and live underwater as well as on land but the father keeps him isolated from other people as he has a vague plan for the boy to found and lead an oceanic republic free of class and other social divisions and exploitation. In the movie Ichtyander (Vladimir Korenev) is a teenager and he falls in love with a girl Gutiere (Anastasia Vertinskaya) after rescuing her from a shark attack; he desires to follow and be with her, and he leaves his water-world to go to the city where she lives. Unfortunately Gutiere’s father, the pearl-diver Baltazar (Anatoly Smiranin), is heavily in debt and has promised the girl’s hand in marriage to local rich playboy Pedro Zurita (Mikhail Kozakov) who has promised to pay the old man’s debts but has other thoughts in mind about how he’ll use Baltazar’s ship and pearl-diver crew to enrich himself.

The plot is a hodge-podge of action, romance and sci-fi fantasy; easy enough to follow but with gaping holes that make it shaky in parts. It seems over-eager to advance to the climax to the extent that characters must have in-built GPS systems in their brains to find significant people. There are elements of comedy and musicals here and there. The busy pace and the plot’s complications don’t permit much character development which is unfortunate because Ichtyander’s infatuation with Gutiere leads him out of his isolation and his father’s control and forces him to confront the best and worst of human behaviour and social interactions. Young viewers might identify with Ichtyander’s confusion at adult ways of behaving and doing things. There is a point made about how money divides people into social classes and how society judges people on the basis of their wealth or poverty. By the end of the film Ichtyander still seems very child-like and his future without his father is uncertain. Other characters who also need to escape from their one-dimensional plane of existence include Gutiere, who could have railed against a system that forces her to marry because of economic necessity, and Baltazar, who is not shown in the movie to have a guilty conscience over horse-trading Gutiere: he must have had one though because (spoiler alert) he ends up saving Gutiere from a lifetime of misery with Pedro. A support character Olsen (Vladlen Davydov) is very under-used as a potential aid and mentor to Ichtyander.

Criticism of capitalism comes in the person of Pedro who desires to exploit Ichtyander’s fishing and diving skills and later tries to convince Dr Salvatore to mass-produce thousands of Ichtyanders for profit, demonstrating that the evil entrepreneurial and exploitive capitalist mindset is always on permanent autopilot in the brains of stock villains. By contrast, Dr Salvatore’s desire for an egalitarian socialist underwater utopia is demonstrated as unrealistic in the context of an impoverished Latin American country where corruption, or what the viewer sees of it, is rife. Everyone in this country seems to be in debt and people constantly haggle for more money: Gutiere gives her necklace to Olsen so he can pawn it for money to keep his newspaper business going and Baltazar is desperate enough to sell off Gutiere to keep his pearl-diving business above water.

A highlight of the film is Andrei Petrov’s musical soundtrack which includes the use of electronic instruments as well as conventional orchestral music and some Spanish-influenced flourishes. Dramatic sweeps of violins and other strings mix with beautiful bell-like tones and some odd, spacey tunes. A couple of songs appear early in the film as though the directors had ambitions for it to be a musical before realising the idea wouldn’t mesh too well with a plot filled with twists.

A chase scene, a kidnap scene and an escape-from-jail scene complete with gunshots enliven the plot which concludes in freedom but not happiness ever after or a better understanding of the corrupt world around them for the young would-be lovers. Overall “Amphibian Man” is a visually striking film with beautifully shot locations that are picturesque and quaint, and which features good-looking young actors who run and swim around a lot. The premise and the plot are interesting though at times the directors seemed unsure whether they were making a musical, a comedy or an action film: the film dithers in one genre, then another before settling into the action genre. The film could have been much stronger with better characterisation and fewer twists in the plot but it was made for general public viewing after all.

The Andromeda Nebula: the Soviet Star Trek that was never to be in spite of impressive visual style

Yevgeny Sherstobitov, “The Andromeda Nebula” (1967)

Based on a novel “Andromeda: a Space-Age Tale” by Ivan Efremov, this is a very visually striking film about the crew of the spaceship the SS Tantra, tasked with a mission to explore and map an unknown sector of space, and the utopian society on Earth that sent out the craft. The film was intended to be the first episode of a series of movies about the SS Tantra people’s adventures but its public reception was apparently poor and Efremov later fell foul of the KGB so the entire multi-film project was abandoned. The fact that “The Andromeda Nebula” wasn’t intended to stand alone explains various anomalies about it: the parallel plots on the spaceship and Earth are very weakly connected and neither is resolved within the film’s 77-minute running time; and the characters are very unevenly developed with only one character, Commander Erg Noor of the SS Tantra (Nikolai Kryukov who has third billing in the acting credits), being the most rounded of the lot and one viewers will most readily follow. The film’s constant flitting between story-lines based on Earth and on the spaceship can be very confusing and viewers need to be very focussed on the relationships among the various characters, in particular the possible love triangle involving Erg Noor, Vida Kong (Vija Artmane) and Dar Veter (Sergei Stolyarov) which perhaps explains why Vida refuses to commit herself to a relationship with Dar Veter, and the infatuation astro-navigator Niza Crete (Tatiana Voloshina) has for Erg Noor, to understand the entire film as it scrolls along.

The SS Tantra is caught in orbit around the Iron Star and its crew intercepts a distress signal coming from a ship on a planet that also orbits the star. Erg Noor commands the ship to land on the planet and he leads a team to investigate. They find an alien spacecraft and also a ship from Earth, both having crash-landed on the planet. While trying to determine the cause of the disaster that befell the ship from Earth, the team is attacked by a mysterious predator that somehows penetrates a man’s space-suit and eats him from within so that he simply disappears and his suit crumples up. The team retreats to the main ship but Erg Noor is determined to know the nature of the predator that manifests as a black shape-shifting cloudy mass, sends out electrical sparls and hides from intense light. The commander’s stubbornness nearly costs the life of an important crew-member whose chances of surviving the trip back to Earth become remote.

Back on Earth, Vida and Dar Veter become very close while Dar Veter gets involved in various creative projects that include archaeology. (The novel’s author himself was a paleontologist who first realised that the ways organisms fossilise could be studied as series of patterns and one of his leisure interests was studying ancient Greek culture.) The futuristic society on Earth is presented as a happy and healthy outdoor-oriented utopia where the air and environment are clean, the weather is always sunny and young people freely choose the adult mentor they believe will guide them. People wear distinctive costumes partly inspired by ancient Greek clothing and designs, greet each other with unusual and particular gestures, and use large television screens to communicate and entertain one another: there is an early scene in which characters watch a colourful dance performance of a woman replicated in multi-shots put together on a large screen on a wall. There’s no need for obvious pro-Communist proselytising because the future society itself is the propaganda.

The plot is similar to the plot of an earlier sci-fi film “Ikarie XB-1” from Czechoslovakia which detailed the day-to-day life of people aboard an interstellar craft and threw them into situations of investigating an abandoned spacecraft with a hidden danger and being affected by radiation from a dark star. That film also insinuated that the society that produced the spaceship Ikarie XB-1 was a perfect utopian society in which people were reasonable and cultured and dealt with crises and emergencies with reasoned intelligence; and so it is with this Soviet film though Erg Noor is allowed a couple of internal conflicts that relate to his dual role as scientist / Tantra commander and the age-old problem of reconciling personal feelings with his duty.

The ancient Greek influence finds expression in the set and costume design which tends on the whole to minimalism, graceful lines and simple patterns on pale or white backgrounds. In outdoor scenes this influence can be impractical (white clothes get dirty in archaeological digging work) and other scenes in which holiday rituals are celebrated look unintentionally (and hilariously) fascist with people lining up in robes before a girant statue of a hand holding a flame. The interior sets of the SS Tantra emphasise its spaciousness and smooth flowing lines with the futuristic technology hinted at: this is to demonstrate that the crew takes the technology for granted and regards it as a help. (Plus of course minimal sets are easy on the film’s budget and the film “ages” more slowly and looks less dated over time.) Significantly the Tantra is not shown in its entirety in the film, avoiding the problem in “Ikarie XB-1″ where the spaceship looked very cheap and cartoonish, and exterior scenes focus on the exploratory vehicles, quite impressive and realistic in looks and design, that Erg Noor’s team brings out to travel to the derelict spaceships. The enemy faced by the SS Tantra crew is very strange and creepy, created almost completely by the use of red and black-coloured smoke manipulated in ways to look almost life-like.

Overall the film is of interest mainly to people keen to know how set design can influence the look, style and atmosphere of films and how stylised acting can give the impression of an unfamiliar, even alien society. The film’s problems with characterisation and plot stem from its makers’ assumptions that it would herald an ongoing series of films in which different characters, presumably all introduced in the first film, would star: the film does finish with a sub-plot cliffhanger near the end. Too many characters with little to do other than look good appear. ” … Nebula” might have worked better as a TV series of 1-hour episodes like a Soviet “Star Trek” than as a full-length movie. Perhaps its support for Communism was too subtle for government censors at the time and the dilemmas Erg Noor faces were politically incorrect: even spaceship captains, however fictional, should always know where their supreme loyalties lie.

The Planet of Storms: lowbrow 1960’s Soviet sci-fi film with high production values and slight subtext

Pavel Klushantsev, “Planeta Bur’ ” aka “The Planet of Storms” (1962)

In the early 1960’s Soviet space exploration was focussed on sending probes and eventually manned spacecraft to the planet Venus and this little B-grade number was commissioned by Soviet film authorities from Pavel Klushantsev who rose to fame with his 1958 science education film “Road to the Stars” which was a mix of fact and fictional speculation of future space travel and exploration. “Planeta Bur’ ” is the only full-length feature Klushantsev made. With his background in special effects engineering, it’s no surprise that the film has excellent production values with advanced special effects simulating a volcano explosion with lava flow and credible background sets of an alien world. The robot in the film has a very technical design though by Western standards of the time it must have looked quite clumsy and comic. Much more impressive is the flying passenger craft, complete with see-through glass shields that double for protection and as entry/exit hatches, which travels across land and sea. Not through sea as the cosmonauts later discover when their little flyer is forced into the water.

Shame then that the plot is very comic-cartoon stuff with characters that are essentially clones of one another in spirit if not in looks. Three spacecraft are on their way to Venus when a stray meteorite comes and blasts one of them into smithereens. The crews of the other ships are very depressed at the disaster but continue onto Venus nevertheless. The crew of one ship land on Venus and begin exploring with their robot John (not “Ivan” perhaps?) but lose contact with the crew of the other ship so they too must descend in a rocket and land to find the lost men while a lone crewmember – the lone woman on the mission – pilots the main craft. While she whiles away her time floating about (literally), the men contend with hydra-like vegetation, bipedal reptilian swamp monsters, an octopus, a pterodactyl and a dinosaur relic to find their companions and explore the planet for signs of life and maybe intelligent life.

Yep, it’s that sort of comic-book sci-fi movie! – except the fauna and flora don’t put up much of a fight and wisely flee when the cosmonauts use shotguns or knives on them. In those days, AK-47s were still limited to the Soviet Army. The men’s real enemy turns out to be John the robot which after being doused by an unexpected downpour of rain (presumably acid) goes demented: it proposes a plan to build a concrete highway across the planet and calculates the cost of construction in terms only Wall Street bankers might understand; it then expounds on creating a world government with itself as prime minister. Talk about having prescience! Later the tinpot tyrant baulks at carrying its human companions, ill though they are with fever, through a river of hot lava and prepares to let them deep-fry; in the nick of time, the crew from the other spacecraft arrive to rescue the men and leave the rebel robot to sizzle alone. Thus a sneaky attempt to impose capitalism on an ideologically and politically innocent planet is thwarted.

There is a hilarious subtext about gender relations: the cosmonauts criticise their lone female crew-member Masha (Khyunna Ignatova) among themselves for violating HQ instructions and leaving the main orbit around Venus to try to rescue them, saying that robots have greater powers of thinking than women do. At the same time the men search for signs of intelligent life and find none, though they find evidence enough that a civilisation once existed on Venus. On renewing radio contact with Masha, the men prepare to meet her ship: after they have blasted away from Venus, intelligent life emerges from its hiding place – in a skilfully prepared camera shot focussing on a pond – and though appearing upside-down in the pond reflection it clearly looks female! Brief moments where the cosmonauts ponder on the destiny of humans and intelligent life generally to travel into space and on how civilisation must have come to Venus appear here and there.

For a pulpy sci-fi flick of its type, “Planet …” clearly emphasises the co-operation and camaraderie among the cosmonauts and their determination to succeed and save their companions against what look like despairingly insurmountable odds. Thankfully the local wildlife accept the cosmonauts as part of their furniture – which animals in real life might well do once they’ve got over the initial shock of seeing, hearing and smelling human intruders – and the really aggressive types are the pot plants with their woody tentacles. The swamp lizard beings briefly defend their territory but once the action moves away from the mud pools, they appear no more. Perhaps the idea of active and voracious plants and rather passive animals appealed to the script writers – it certainly parallels the gender reversal subtext. The film is not stridently propagandistic and this reviewer’s impression is that Klushantsev fought to keep as much scientific veracity and a spirit of co-operation among the crew members (who are a mixed Soviet-American bunch) as he could in the plot and the characterisation. The actors do what they can with the script which requires them to be heroic and straight-faced and to spout lines they might have laughed at most of the time.

Overall this is an entertaining piece that shows the kind of technically sophisticated science fiction movie that film studios in the Soviet Union were capable of making in the early 1960’s. Still with regard to plot and message, “Planeta …” had to cater for most levels of taste and knowledge and pass muster with government authorities. The safe way out then was to produce something that was straightforward and heroic if somewhat lowbrow with just a hint of a politically innocuous subtext for some perceptive people to chew over.

The Legend of Suram Fortress: Georgian folk-tale of self-sacrifice and love of country retold in a beautiful film

Sergei Parajanov, “Ambavi Suramis Tsikhitsa” /  “The Legend of Suram Fortress” (1986)

“The Legend of Suram Fortress” is based on an old Georgian folk tale as rewritten in the 19th century by writer Daniel Chonqadze. The plot isn’t hard to follow but there are digressions that almost overwhelm the narrative. Mediaeval Georgia is at war with nearby countries and needs strong fortifications to remain secure; all but one fortress hold strong against the country’s enemies. No-one knows how to make the fortress at Suram secure: an early scene shows the newly reinforced stronghold crumbling before the camera, the lens itself splashed with mud and water. During this time the Prince of Georgia sees fit to free his serf Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) who is left homeless and penniless as a result. He vows to buy the freedom of his love Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili) and to marry her but she foresees that he won’t return. Durmishkhan leaves Georgia and meets a rich merchant Osman-agha who tells the youngster his own history and conversion to Islam. Osman-agha takes on Durmishkhan as a son and heir and teaches him his trading business. Over the years Durmishkhan becomes a wealthy trader, marries and has a son called Zurab, and himself converts to Islam. In the meantime Vardo, despairing that she will never see Durmishkhan again, becomes a fortune-teller.

The situation in Georgia worsens and Osman-agha leaves his business to Durmishkhan and returns to Georgia where he dies. Durmishkhan and a grown-up Zurab (Levan Uchaneishvili) go to Georgia and – the plot becomes hazy at this point – Zurab enters the Prince’s service. The Prince orders all fortresses to be strengthened but Suram continues to crumble. He sends some envoys who include Zurab to visit the ageing Vardo (Sofiko Chiaureli) who, on recognising Zurab as her old lover’s son, keeps him aside from the others and tells him that a young blond and blue-eyed man must be bricked up alive in the fortress walls for the fortress to stand strong. Zurab, not knowing anything about Vardo’s past, later realises he is that man.

The narrative and Parajanov’s idiosyncratic style of directing that makes his movies akin to unfolding scrolls of dioramas of picturesque scenery inhabited by moving people and animals combine to make difficult viewing which is why repeated viewings may be necessary to fully appreciate this and similar films that showcase an unfamiliar culture through one of its stories. Although Parajanov breaks his tale into several episodes – the break-up does tend to disturb the film’s flow – in each episode the style of filming, with the camera set back some distance from the action and often at odd viewpoints such as knee-height or looking down from a balcony, means viewers have to try to take in action at the top of the screen (background scenes) as well as in the middle and front of the screen. There are many outdoor scenes, some of them spectacular and shot from afar, that almost amount to overkill for audiences more used to seeing movies in which action is shot fairly close up and the scenes or backgrounds are made generic or stereotyped enough to throw the focus onto the actors. Some of the outdoor locations – in particular the precipitous staircase to Vardo’s home after she becomes a fortune-teller – are so breath-taking that they deserve a longer still-life shot to themselves than they get in the film. The cast includes animals of the hoofed kind: horses, sheep, camels in many shots to themselves as groups and individuals and a couple of llamas (methinks that was an oversight) in one shot.

In this kind of film where plot and context override everything the quality of acting is not important so here it is minimal. Actors speak but don’t necessarily face one another – they tend to face the camera or look away from the recipient when speaking. If they appear to converse together, the camera frames their entire bodies and the activity around them. The dialogue serves to push the plot and feelings and opinions are not expressed. Viewers have to guess at what motivates Osman-agha then to give up his business and wealth, convert back to Christianity and return to Georgia at the risk of losing his life as his history forms a major sub-plot that may say something about how fluid ethnic and religious identities and loyalties can be and how easily small Christian Georgia could be swallowed up by the larger Islamic Turkish and Persian empires to its south. Perhaps Osman-agha’s motivation ties in with the film’s theme of self-sacrifice and loyalty to ideals higher than oneself: the aged merchant must be aware that renouncing Islam would lead to his death but his loyalty to the country of his birth and its religion overrides any qualms he has about being killed for apostasy. Another character whose motivations can be a puzzle is Vardo who knowingly sends her ex-lover’s son to his death yet mourns him at his grave. There’s the possibility any human sacrifice could have sufficed to strengthen the fortress and Vardo made up the bit about the sacrifice being an Adonis pin-up out of spite.

Some idea of Georgian culture and society as militant, passionate and heroic can be gleaned from the film though viewers may miss many background cultural details in following the plot and digesting the film’s tone and look. There are definite cultural influences from the Islamic societies south (Turkey and Persia) and from the Caucasus region; the music soundtrack often features the harsh and shrill winding melodies associated with Middle Eastern countries. The overall look is very busy with constant movement in the foregrounds and backgrounds of most scenes and the pace seems quite brisk though the shots are not short and the camera doesn’t move often.

Although “… Suram Fortress” isn’t as abstract as its 1969 predecessor “The Color of Pomegranates” and its plot and structure make it a more accessible film to general audiences, the narrative and visual style compete for attention so the film is tiring to watch. Parajanov’s distinctive style of filming recounts the legend in a way that brings out its dark magic. The legend itself harks back to a pre-Christian past of nature worship which included  placating the gods with human sacrifices and suggests even man-made inanimate objects such as buildings require the appropriate homage and rituals.

The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova): an idiosyncratic film that preserves the spirit and culture of Armenian people

Sergei Parajanov, “The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova)” (1969)

A true labour of love, this film is a meditation on the life of the Armenian poet who was born Harutyun Sayatyan and came to be known as Sayat-Nova (Persian for “King of Songs”). Since the film isn’t intended as an authentic blow-by-blow account of Sayat-Nova’s life, here is a quick rundown of his life (the information is from Wikipedia): born in Tbilisi in Georgia in 1712, Sayat-Nova acquired skills in writing poetry, singing and playing at least three types of stringed musical instrument. He entered the court of King Irakly II of Georgia as both full-time professional poet and diplomat and in his capacity as a dilopmat helped forge an alliance of Georgia, Armenia and Shirvan (a former state now part of Azerbaijan) against Persia. Sayat-Nova was expelled from the court for falling in love with his employer’s daughter and became a wandering troubadour. He entered the priesthood in 1759 and served in various monasteries, dying in Haghpat monastery in northern Armenia in 1795 when a foreign army invaded the building and killed the monks inside.

Knowing the background information will enable viewers to get a handle on an otherwise confusing series of visually gorgeous and lush tableaux showcasing Armenian culture and its steadfast devotion to Christianity which incorporates animal sacrifice. The film follows Sayat-Nova’s inner life  and impressions of the world around him based on his poetry and songs. The structure of the narrative is straightforward and organised into chronological episodes starting with the poet’s childhood and youth and continuing into his time at the royal court and later entry into monastic life. There are deviations into aspects of the poet’s inner life: his dreams, sexual desire and love for a woman and meditation on death. Each episode of Sayat-Nova’s outer and inner life is an opportunity for director Parajanov to highlight the culture, music and society of the poet’s time: to take one example, the poet’s childhood becomes a device to emphasise the importance of learning, education and religious study in Armenian society at the time. Scenes of the young Sayat-Nova surrounded by open books on roof-tops stress the value of books and their preservation. When the young budding poet is tired of studying books, he hangs around wool-dyers and the bath-house and again various tableaux show the dyers at work. boiling pots of dye and drenching wool into them, and various men relaxing and being scrubbed in the bath-house. These and all other tableaux of 18th-century Armenian life and culture in the film are often symbolic in ways that may be religious or hint at something darker. Demonstrating the importance of stock-breeding in 18th-century Armenia, animals appear in nearly all tableaux, culminating in one extraordinary scene in which the middle-aged poet is nearly swallowed in a flock of sheep filling up all the space and the corners of a church: there may be hints of pre-Christian nature worship in this particular scene as well. Viewers are invited to wonder at the richness and complexity of the culture and values inherent in these scenes and to meditate on what meanings, personal or otherwise, may exist within. Magic may be found and for some viewers the past itself may come alive with personal messages for them and them alone.

For this viewer at least the music soundtrack itself is amazing: it has many Middle Eastern influences, Christian choral elements and there are even hints of musique concrète: in one scene, men are working on part of a church with chisels and the noise they make is incorporated into the soundtrack rhythm. The film suggests a link between one musical instrument that Sayat-Nova plays and his sexual desire: in one scene the poet traces spirals around the body of a lute as if tracing spirals around a conch (already established as a sensual symbol of the female body). The implication is that much of Sayat-Nova’s poetry and music was inspired by personal lust and desire translated into inspiration. As though to drive the point home, the film provides an actual lust object of a muse played by Georgian actor Sofiko Chiaureli who handles five different roles in the film including the poet himself as a teenager. The very fact of a woman with flawless features playing an adolescent boy introduces a homo-eroticism into the movie which among other things got Parajanov in trouble with the Soviet government. Chiaureli and the other actors speak no dialogue and perform minimal actions with expressions that are either blank or at least gentle, kindly and serene. In maintaining a steady, calm composure throughout their scenes, not giving the least hint of injecting their own thoughts, feelings and misgivings into what they are doing, the actors demonstrate their skill.

Apart from necessary scene breaks there isn’t much editing and the camera rarely moves so each scene has a painterly quality and is a diorama of moving characters who appear two-dimensional in the way they may move from side to side. Close-ups of actors playing Sayat-Nova and those who influenced his work portray them as if they are religious icons.

For Western viewers the first half of the film is of more interest in showing more of the traditional folk culture and values of the Armenians and the pace is steady though not fast; the second half of the film which deals with Sayat-Nova’s inner life much more, with his dream and contemplation of death, is slower and more esoteric. As the poet revisits his childhood in parts, some scenes may confuse viewers with the sudden appearances of the same child actor who played Sayat-Nova early in the film. The last two episodes appear redundant as they revolve around death. In the second half of the movie also, there is a sense of aloneness and alienation: Sayat-Nova appears to be at odds with the monks in the monastery at times and doesn’t participate in the monks’ communal activities. At one point in the narrative, he even leaves the monastery to go and work among the common people. It is possible that Parajanov was projecting something of his own life and experiences in the “life” of Sayat-Nova as it plays out here.

With this and other movie-length films such as “The Legend of Suram Fortress” and “Ashik Kerib”, Parajanov was perhaps trying to capture the spiritual essence of the cultures around which the films revolve so that Armenians, Georgians and Azeris alike could see through the rituals, customs and traditions shown the reverence their ancestors had for God, their land and way of life. Why Parajanov did this must be seen in the context that he had to work in: the Soviet government did all it could to suppress religion and its rituals. In doing so, it was wiping out much of the cultures of non-Russian peoples under a multicultural façade that celebrated “folk cultures” as long as they were drained of any inner meaning. This may have been the intention as religion is often the basis of a people’s identity and culture, and without religion, people in the Soviet Union would have become easier to mould in the regime’s idea of the new Soviet citizen.

Not necessarily suited for a wide general audience due to the subject matter and its treatment but for those of open mind and who are interested in film as more than moving stories, this film is a worthwhile treat. It serves as an original and eccentric introduction to the culture and society of 18th-century Armenia through the life of one of its most famous sons.