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.

Aelita, Queen of Mars: a multi-plot story with a moral about living in fantasy versus living in reality

Yakov Protazanov, “Aelita, Queen of Mars” (1924)

This silent Soviet film from the mid-1920’s can be seen in nine parts on Youtube.com thanks to contributor Ishexan. Most current interest in the movie focusses on its sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).

Los’s fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can’t be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet’s chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there’s a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie’s running time flits from Los’s work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev’s on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha’s shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focusses on one man’s attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences’ attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.

All this means that “Aelita …” can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920’s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film’s plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los’s daydreams which the film deliberately doesn’t separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov’s treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.

Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don’t usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film’s message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won’t help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.

The film’s production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aritstocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage?

Ultimately for most people the main value of “Aelita …” will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.

Andrei Rublev: multi-layered film about art, faith and taking creative risks

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Loosely based on the life of the eponymous 15th century Russian icon painter, “Andrei Rublev” examines the relationship of an artist with his faith and what place he can make for himself in a society that doesn’t necessarily value faith or art. The movie consists of seven episodes bookended by a prologue and epilogue related to its themes; the episodes cover the years 1405 to 1425 in Rublev’s life. Each episode involves an event or incident, not necessarily historically accurate, in which Rublev is an observer or participant and shows the political instability, stagnation and spiritual corruption of mediaeval Russian society which made it vulnerable to foreign attacks. Criticism of the Soviet society at the time the film was made is implied. There is a definite linear narrative in which Rublev faces criticism from his fellow monks for wanting fame and renown, nearly succumbs to sensual temptation, has doubts about his skill as a painter, suffers punishment that severely curtails his ability and desire to paint, and finally finds unlikely inspiration to resume painting and renew his faith in God, himself as a person and in his art.

Most of the movie is filmed in black and white with only the epilogue, detailing some of Rublev’s actual works, done in colour: this most likely was done to emphasise that the artist himself is not that important but that his inner spiritual life, his beliefs and his doubts, faith and weaknesses informed his art and artistic journey, and what resulted from that journey is most important. (The black-and-white film is a convenience to first-time non-Russian-speaking viewers as well: it makes following the narrative, themes and dialogue subtitles much easier!) There is a mix of aerial panning shots, tracking shots, long shots and close-ups, all done very smoothly and gracefully, so the movie is as much about Russia itself at a particular time in its history when the country was struggling to throw off Mongol-Tatar rule and Orthodox Christianity was becoming a major force in Russian culture and society, though not without resistance from the common people. This is evident from episodes which include Rublev as an observer and near-participant in pagan fertility rituals, and as an observer of a Tatar raid on the town of Vladimir where he has been at work painting murals in the cathedral which the Tatars pillage and burn. Parts of the film, especially those featuring shots where the camera circles an entire scene where something significant is happening, have a disinterested, almost documentary feel about them that can be reminiscent of work done by German director Werner Herzog. Nature and weather are prominent in many scenes: Rublev and his apprentice Foma walk through a forest discussing Foma’s faults, walking over or along fallen branches; Foma later prods at a dead bird while Rublev converses with a monk; a naked woman swims in a river to escape her captors in an extended shot; Rublev and other characters comment on the singing of nightingales; and there are many shots of horses, some of which are very close to the camera.

As Rublev, actor Anatoly Solonitsyn doesn’t have a lot to do: in many episodes, especially the last episode in which a teenage boy called Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev) oversees the construction of a bell, Rublev is only a minor character who reacts to incidents or is affected by them. Solonitsyn’s acting is very minimal and even his facial expressions give little away; by contrast, other actors such as Buryayev, Ivan Lapikov as Rublev’s fellow monk Kirill, Rolan Bykov as an animated jester and Irma Rausch as mute girl Durochka can be very emotional and their actions expressive in a naturalistic but not melodramatic way. The seven episodes emphasise Rublev’s quest for spiritual and artistic integrity and have the quality of parables. External events, his self-doubt, his weaknesses and the hypocrisies of the society he lives in, not to mention the compromises he is forced to make as a result, all complicate the quest. Even the ideal Rublev ascribes to – love of Russia, love of the Russian people, or agape (spiritual, selfless love as practised by Jesus Christ) – is tested by his encounters and his reactions: in one episode, he saves Durochka from being raped by killing her would-be attacker (a Russian soldier) while Tatars are plundering the cathedral where he and Durochka are sheltering. For this murder, Rublev must do penance by taking care of Durochka, being silent and refraining from painting anything at all. (This scene could also suggest that defending others unable to defend themselves can result in one being deprived of rights and freedoms of expression and speech in a repressive society; many other scenes in “Andrei Rublev” can be interpreted at different levels to mean different things.) In a later episode, Durochka “betrays” Rublev by accepting an offer of marriage from a Tatar soldier and riding off with him. Understandably this causes a crisis of faith for Rublev both personally and at a deeper level and he is unable to function at all as a painter for over ten years.

The supporting cast clearly represent the movie’s themes: Kirill as the monk lacking artistic talent who renounces monastery life and goes into the world, only to return to the monastery years later in spiritual and moral despair, represents an extreme example of what can happen to individuals when they lose faith and the torments they must endure to regain it; Boriska, who blusters his way through making his first bell and admits after making a perfect-sounding bell that he really didn’t know his father’s secret of making bells, represents youth, vitality and creativity buoyed by hope, hard work, belief in oneself or trust in God; and minor characters like Marfa (Nelly Snegina) and the jester represent aspects of a more sensual, natural though pre-Christian Russia which Rublev as a young man finds hard to resist.

Yes, there are scenes of bleakness, of unbelievable cruelty and violence (especially to animals: a horse is filmed falling down and through a wooden staircase, later to be stabbed to death, and a cow is set on fire) and of sheer pig-headed bigotry, all of which help to paint and embellish director Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision of Russia in all its contradictory glory. Tarkovsky’s love for his country and people is obvious but it is love tempered by knowledge of his society’s shortcomings. The film isn’t easy to watch: the pace isn’t slow but it’s fairly leisurely and viewers used to more conventional narratives in which a hero tries to overcome obstacles rather than simply endure them might find Rublev an unsympathetic and distant figure. Repeated viewings are recommended to understand the film’s messages more fully as it’s a many-layered creature. The episodic nature of the film lends itself to viewing in installments for those viewers of little faith as the episodes are fairly self-contained and only a minor incident in episode 7 refers to an earlier episode: in that regard, the important episodes to see are 2 (meetings with Theophanes the Greek) and 5 to 7 which cover the Tatar invasion of Vladimir, Durochka’s running away and the bell-making story.

The best and most emotional moment of “Andrei Rublev” comes near the close of the seventh episode (and the effective end of the movie) when the bell is finished and is made to ring: its resonant sound brings unspeakable joy to its young maker who sobs uncontrollably in Rublev’s arms and admits to the monk that all he had to go on was faith and sheer risk-taking bluff, only to realise he really did have the talent to make a bell. In that moment all the movie’s themes come together and Rublev experiences a rebirth: he is able to speak at last and resume painting. 

Knowledge of Russian history and of the real-life Andrei Rublev, of whom little is actually known, isn’t absolutely necessary to follow the film though viewers may find it helpful to know something of the Mongol-Tatar invasions and how Russian politics was affected: while there was some resistance among the Russian nobility, some princes did co-operate with the invaders and the political disunity perhaps allowed the Mongols to rule the country for as long as they did (over 250 years). While “Andrei Rublev” might not suit most Western audiences who prefer more dynamic narrative forms and active heroic characters, it is a rewarding film about art and the artist’s place in a less-than-ideal society.

Miss Mend, Part One: silent film is a real blast from the Soviet past

Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep, “Miss Mend, Part One”, (1926)
 
I saw this film together with “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival recently. I couldn’t have come across two films more unalike at a film festival: “The Cabinet …” drew on developments in the German artistic and cultural scene whereas “Miss Mend, Part One” is a Soviet film that self-consciously draws on American films popular with Soviet audiences in the mid-1920’s. The movie is the first of three roughly 90-minute films centred around a feisty young woman called Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan) and three newspaper reporters, one of whom is played by Boris Barnet who also co-wrote the script and co-directed the movie. The reporters discover a conspiracy surrounding the death of a prominent businessman Gordon Stern and spend much of their time trying to uncover the details and join them together. Vivian Mend becomes romantically linked to Stern’s son Arthur who conceals his identity from her as she’s also very much involved in defending the workers at his father’s cork factory where she works as a secretary; in her spare time, she cares for a young nephew whose paternity is unknown.
 
It’s all go-go-go action from the outset with lots of twists in the plot, various chase scenes, poor old Stern senior being revived twice and put back to sleep, and at least two major fight scenes taking place on factory premises and in a pub. In one breath-taking scene a car is deliberately driven onto and stopped on train tracks and the train slams right into it. The good guys and the bad guys, led by the sinister agent Chiche (Sergei Komarov), are clearly delineated early on as stock characters with the villains oozing devilry from every pore and the reporters (who actually take up more screen time than Vivian) generally good-hearted and fun guys to be around though they’re not always very cluey and one of them is a stock klutz character, always getting into hilarious scrapes where the opportunity presents itself. Vivian is portrayed as a strong go-getter survivor, looking out for her cheeky nephew and willing to challenge her old boss’s will (which has been secretly changed by the villains), which action sets her up for Part One’s cliff-hanger end. Interesting that Glan appears in all her scenes looking completely natural with little or no make-up and not looking at all glammed up as might be expected in a movie imitating American-style movie-making.
 
At the time I saw this movie, the second and third parts of the trilogy had not yet been fully restored so it’s gonna be a lo-o-ong time before I discover how brave Vivian gets out of her cliff-hanger mess and if she gets justice for herself, her nephew and the sacked factory workers. From what I’ve been able to find out, Vivian’s nephew turns out to be Arthur’s little half-brother and the villains kidnap the little guy so Vivian and the reporters have their work cut out to rescue the boy and stop Chiche and the secret organisation he works for from using the Stern fortune to unleash a deadly bacteriological weapon on Russia to wipe out the population and destroy Communism. (A DVD of the full trilogy which lasts nearly four hours is available from Flicker Alley and can be bought online.)
 
Comedy, drama and serious political commentary are mixed in equal amounts and the movie makes some brief pointed comments about the treatment of minorities like blacks and Asians in early 20th century US society. I had expected to see considerable anti-capitalist propaganda in the movie but it’s much more subtle than I thought it would be and Arthur Stern seems a good-hearted guy, at least in the first part of the trilogy. The scenes in the movie are almost completely urban or semi-urban with cars a-plenty buzzing around in the streets and even in the countryside, and the film looks as if it could have been made in any country that had a film industry in the 1920s. The film concentrates on the supposed underbelly of US capitalism at the time and the villains and the wealthy people they represent are portrayed in a way that seems quaint, naive and very stereotyped to us.
 
Athleticism takes priority over acting skill as the actors spend a lot of time racing from one place to another, climbing fences and walls, and battling it out where necessary in tightly choreographed fight and chase scenes. I’m sure a lot of people think of old silent films as having quite simple story-lines and employing unsophisticated filming and acting techniques and methods but scenes like one where the train rams into the car would have called for careful planning and synchronisation of the action, not to mention a lot of editing (and maybe a number of spare junked cars!) and a team of medics and insurance people on the site to make sure no-one got hurt.
 
The whole movie’s fun to watch though I find myself rooting more for the reporters than for Vivian. In this part at least, Vivian doesn’t come over as anyone remarkable – all the characters tend to be one-dimensional but they are stock figures anyway – but maybe in subsequent parts where her nephew is kidnapped, we may get to see what she’s really made of.