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.

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