One of the great joys of watching movies from countries and cultures with which I have maybe, at best, a passing familiarity is discovering their language of film — both in their mainstream as well as their fringes. There is a thrill in discovering how differently one country, one region, one filmmaker can interpret how to employ this medium we love so dearly. How something familiar — a movie — can become something enigmatic, how the concept of what constitutes a narrative and for what purpose it should be employed varies so greatly. They draw on local customs and theatrical styles, local folklore and legends, and of course local tastes. How to frame a shot, how to deliver a line, how to interact with the camera, how to make a set or film on location, what constitutes a cinematic narrative — it’s amazing how many different ways these things can be done.
Legend of Suram Fortress‘ striking image of a man with a painted face and motley assortment of robes and turbans caught my eye as it popped up one day as I was poking around the Kino Lorber website for more ways they could drain me of my money. At the time, I knew nothing of director Sergei Paradjanov. While I live in a neighborhood that is a mixture of Russians, Ukrainians, and Georgians (as well as Turks, Indians, Chinese, and Orthodox Jews) and tend to kick around Brighton Beach, buying Russian movies and eating dumplings and buying vodka in a bottle shaped like a Kalashnikov, I am almost totally ignorant — other than in the very vaguest of senses — of the ins and outs of the many cultures that make up the Caucasus regions and former Soviet republics. So this strange image on the front of a DVD box set was unknown and enticing to me; but in fact he’s probably no more mysterious than a medieval troubadour or some random guy in a Greek toga. I was judging from a position of ignorance, and so I figured watching the movies in the set would be a good way to begin down the road of alleviating some of that personal ignorance.
However, some degree of education subsequently achieved, Legend of Suram Fortress remains a very strange film from a very strange director, like an esoteric magical tome written in a language only known in the land of faerie and to Alejandro Jodorowsky. In fact, so surreal was the cinematic style of Sergei Paradjanov that it was considered an affront to the Soviet Union, an artistic divergence so severe that it landed the director in a gulag for crimes committed against social realism. But if one is to stumble semi-blind through the rich and esoteric cultural heritage of the Soviet Union’s Central Asian spheres of influence, one will be confused but enlightened by having Paradjanov as a guide. He was a man trained in the established art schools and production studios of Moscow and Kiev but possessed of a fierce interest in exploring the pre-Soviet indigenous cultures of places like Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan in a way that had little respect for traditional, logical narrative.
Born to erudite Armenian parents living in Georgia, Paradjanov was exposed to the arts at an early age and attended film school at the esteemed Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. There, his professors included Alexander Dovzhenko, one of the great screenwriters and directors of early Soviet cinema. From almost the beginning, Paradjanov was an iconoclast who clashed with the state-sponsored spokesmen of the Soviet status quo. In 1948, he was convicted of homosexuality and sentenced to five years in prison. Many found the charge dubious, suspecting that he had been convicted more for his thoughts on cinema and the arts than for whatever sexual dalliances in which he might have indulged. Whatever the case, he only served three months of his sentence, being freed during a general amnesty. He wouldn’t stay free.
In 1950, the religious and cultural conflicts that would play such a crucial role in his films found a very personal purchase. He met and married a Muslim woman who converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity — a blasphemy for which her relatives murdered her. Distraught, Paradjanov left Moscow in favor of Kiev in the Ukraine, where he began working professionally in film, primarily well within the boundaries of state-approved social realism and with themes in the service of the Soviet Union, though it would seem Paradjanov was unhappy with this period (which he later dismissed as garbage). A growing friendship with director Andrey Tarkovsky (Solaris) encouraged Paradjanov to begin testing the limits of what state authorities would allow him to get away with. In 1964, he released the first film over which he maintained complete artistic control, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.
It was a well-regarded film, one with supernatural overtones reminiscent of Gogol; and a landmark film in the Ukrainian film industry, itself largely subsumed by the Soviet juggernaut. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was released throughout the Soviet Union with its original Ukrainian language soundtrack rather being dubbed into Russian, and it offered a unique glimpse at old Ukrainian customs and tales. Emboldened perhaps by how he had skirted the boundaries of social realism without serious repercussions, Paradjanov’s next film, 1968’s Sayat Nova, explored the life of Armenian poet-singer Sayat Nova. This time, Paradjanov broke entirely with the tenets of social realism, and with logical filmmaking of any particular school. Sayat Nova is dreamlike hallucination, a lush (if extremely low-budget) exploration of the departure from A-to-B film narrative that had for so long been the order of the day. The film earned Paradjanov a litany of condemnations from Soviet authorities due to its sensitive cultural and religious content — as well as the heinous crime of “surrealism.”
In an effort to salvage the film’s chances of being seen, or perhaps because he was forced to do so, Paradjanov recut the film and retitled it The Color of Pomegranates. It was not enough to assuage the ire of Soviet censors, however. By 1973, he found himself once again in a gulag, once again with the charge being homosexuality — though this time the police added everything from distribution of pornography to rape to inciting people to suicide to the list of charges. Members of the greater European (and American) film and arts community banded together in protest of what was, once again, regarded as a bogus imprisonment, but Soviet politicians didn’t seem to care very much about what Federico Fellini and Yves Saint-Laurent had to say about the matter. In the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky remained a vocal supported of Paradjanov and frequently denounced the man’s imprisonment.
Despite these protests, Paradjanov remained in prison from 1974 until 1977, when he was released after serving four years on his five-year sentence. His early release was apparently because Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev met two artists, Russian poet Elsa Triolet and her husband, a French writer and surrealist named Louis Aragon, at a performance and, upon casually asking if there was anything he could do to assist the couple in their artistic lives, was confronted by pleas that Sergei Paradjanov should be freed. Although released in 1977, Paradjanov was not allowed anywhere near a movie camera, and he occupied his artistic appetites with the crafts of making dolls and collages, which had gotten him through his stint in prison (and the fruits of which surface as props in his later movies).
But freedom was short-lived for the confrontational Paradjanov. By 1982, he was back in prison but served only one year of his sentence, due in part to the poor quality of his health but also to the fact that big social and political changes were afoot in the Soviet Union. This time, we was allowed to once again pursue his passion for filmmaking. In 1984, some fifteen years after his last film, Sergei Paradjanov once again found himself behind the camera. The result was The Legend of Suram Fortress. In terms of his approach to cinematic narrative, his visual style, and his personal thematic obsessions, it was as if hardly any time had passed at all.
Based on a retelling by author Daniel Chonkadze of a Georgian folktale, the simple plot at the core of the movie is about Georgia in a tumultuous time, caught in the middle of a war between Muslims and Christians. Although its borders are largely secure thanks to a network of fortresses, one of these strongholds — Suram Fortress — is a weak link owing to the fact that no matter what manner of architectural and engineering know-how is applied to it, the walls inevitably crumble after a short while, leaving Georgia ripe for invasion. In the story, as is usually the case with folktales no matter where they originate, it requires the sacrifice of a brave young innocent before the curse can be lifted. Simple enough, and certainly familiar enough even if one isn’t familiar with the particular story. It could have easily been adapted by a more conventional director of Russian fantasy films, though Aleksandr Ptushko would have included a lot more flying people and probably at least one giant goblin (and I would have probably enjoyed it quite a bit).
In the hands of a cinematic madman like Sergei Paradjanov, the story is buried under the director’s passion for a style of movie-making that borders on the arcane, infusing even the simplest of scenes with stunning visual complexity and an air of something to do with pagan magic that far precedes the Christians and Muslims presented in the film. Legend of Suram Fortress is a fairytale without any fairies, a fantasy film in which the fantastic elements are derived not so much from what is happening but rather how the story is depicted. It’s easy, especially upon a first viewing, to lose oneself entirely in the abundance of visual pageantry and and have no hope at all of deciphering the plot — or knowing if “plot” is even particularly important to what Paradjanov hopes to accomplish.
The film begins with a brief recounting of the woes that befall the eternally decaying Suram Fortress, then leaps into the story of a young serf named Durmishkhan (acclaimed actor Zurab Kipshidze, who was among the people most important to convincing the Soviet Union to let Paradjanov direct again) who has found himself suddenly free of servitude. While understandably happy for himself, his beloved Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili) is less enthusiastic since she herself is still a slave, forced to dance and and act as a seer for the tsar. Durmishkhan swears he will go out into the world and make enough money to purchase her freedom. He remembers his commitment to Vardo for all of a few days it seems, before befriending a successful merchant named Osman Agha (Dodo Abashidze), who was himself a slave and was set free after his master killed Osman’s mother in a fit of rage and wanted to make amends. Durmishkhan joins Osman’s business and eventually forgets about Vardo entirely, marrying another woman who bears him a son they name Zurab (Levan Uchaneishvili).
Abandoned by her one-time lover, Vardo seeks wisdom from a fortune-teller. Distressed at what she learns, the young woman swears off the world, becoming a fortune-teller herself. Years later, with Suram Fortress once again crumbling and the nation threatened by invasion, the tsar sends an envoy to Vardo to seek her guidance in removing whatever this curse is that lingers over the walls of Suram. Leading the envoy, so it happens, is none other than Zurab, now a grown man and the sole recipient of the ghoulish solution to the fortress’ continuing misfortune.
On top of that story, Paradjanov paints layer upon layer of stunning imagery. Filmed on location in the wide-open steppe-country of Georgia, Legend of Suram Fortress is blessed with a similarly wide-open style. Paradjanov arranges his actors like players on a stage, often in a symmetrical position and usually all facing toward the camera. It is as if one is watching the illustrations of a particularly astonishing illuminated text come to life. There is in the style a tradition of medieval theater, and the costumes conjure up images of everything from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires to Mongolian nomads. One can easily imagine a band of brightly garbed mummers rolling into a remote town and mounting a production that looks a lot like this movie.
Into this brown and yellow landscape of rock and grassland Paradjanov adds shocking splashes of color in the form of brilliant scarves and robes or vibrant animals like peacocks, fruits like pomegranates. He stages much of the action in what remains today of the real Suram Fortress, pretending it is not a ruin even though every shot reminds us its time is long gone. In other instances, he ignores with similar veracity the real state of the modern world, filming medieval scenes with a background that clearly and purposefully contains modern promenades and freight ships. Similarly, the music is an odd blend of ancient and modern sounds, with classical Georgian instruments sometimes giving way to ambient electronica, often in the same scene, before drifting back to something traditional. Taken out of context, it would be easy to pass this movie off not just as fantasy, not just as folklore, but as science fiction (the medieval Georgian villages, hewn often from the stone of caverns and cliff walls, look like something straight out of the German-Soviet sci-fi film Hard to Be a God).
What this all means is ultimately left to the viewer, though Paradjanov certainly has a vision. In the story of the merchant, born a Christian but converted to Islam to avoid persecution, only to convert back to Christianity later in life and dream of being executed as an infidel, one sees clear correlation with the tragic fate of Paradjanov’s first wife. And it’s probably no coincidence that Paradjanov chose as his first film after fifteen years of artistic exile and imprisonment to make a movie in which physical and spiritual bondage play such a central role, and one in which a man is literally entombed alive to preserve the common good. It is common for individuality to be subjugated in the service of myth, but here the opposite occurs. Paradjanov takes a well-known tale and transforms it into something very intimate and personal.
The fact that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is so different and seemingly more mystical than the strands of Christianity practiced in the West means that, to a person raised on Protestantism or Catholicism, the religion we see in Legend of Suram Fortress is as inscrutable and cryptic as if we were watching Celtic druids praising Pagan goddesses. Of course, plenty of people think the same thing of Catholicism. The strands of southern Christianity with which I was surrounded in my youth may seem pretty vanilla by comparison, but then, well, we have snake handling cults and voodoo and evangelicals preaching the Rapture, among other unconventional interpretations of The Good Word. So I guess it’s all pretty weird if you aren’t exposed to it. Exactly what Paradjanov’s final judgement of religion is remains open to interpretation. Certainly it seems at time little more than an altar on which the young are sacrificed, a justification for brutality, and a meaningless charade in which one drapes oneself, willing to be discarded and resumed as one religion or another becomes more convenient to the current circumstance.
Having once in this article invoked the name of Alejandro Jodorowsky, it’s time to bring him up again. He and Paradjanov share not only a very complicated relationship with religion and with the ancient mysticism that lurks beneath faiths that claim to reject mysticism; they also share a similar visual style and unwillingness to afford the audience easy interpretation of what is being seen (and an affinity for massive numbers of livestock wandering around). Such interpretations demand that the director command you what to think, after all, and neither Jodorowsky or Paradjanov seem overly concerned with enforcing doctrine. Nor is either man prone to believing that logic or narrative cohesion is the duty of a film. It’s just a medium, after all, and locking ourselves into rigid thinking about how it should be used would tragically limit its potential. There is a decipherable story in The Legend of Suram Fortress, and a fairly universal one, but it exists in service of Paradjanov’s overall artistic dream. We are in the realm of visions and hallucinations, dreams in which the absurd sometimes intrudes, and in which not every image has a comprehensible meaning.
Fans of Jodorowsky, or of directors like Fellini and Luis Bunel will find much to ponder in Legend of Suram Fortress. Even fans of Eurocult directors like Jess Franco and, perhaps more so, Jean Rollin, will recognize a shared thread. This is not the kind of film that is meant for everyone — which I know sounds snobbishly dismissive but is not meant to be so. There are different types of food, and there are different types of movies. Not everyone is meant to like everything, and no one version of this or that is superior. Legend of Suram Fortress has a different set of priorities than more cohesive, less fractured filmmaking, and that has limited appeal. But for those who do appreciate a good dose of surreal esotericism, Legend of Suram Fortress is a land rich with wonders. Paradjanov’s interpretation of what film can be is unique and captivating, and it affords the viewer an escape from the expected and familiar. One is well rewarded for exploring it, and what it has to offer becomes increasingly clearer the more time one spends with it.