Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ethno-Brechtian Pomegranate Orgy: Sergei Parajanov’s Ashik Kerib



In all of world cinema, there can be few oeuvres as wonderfully strange and original as Sergei Parajanov’s.  The great Soviet filmmaker directed a number of films, the first several of which were  made under the constraints of socialist realism and which he would later disavow; he is remembered chiefly for four mind-fucking films set in the Soviet Union’s many non-Russian cultures: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), set in the Ukraine and probably his greatest film; The Color of Pomegranates (1968), set in Armenia; and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988), set in Georgia and Azerbaijan respectively and co-directed with Dodo Abashidze.  Parajanov himself (né Parajanian) was born to Armenian parents in Georgia and spent much of his career pissing of the Soviet government by mining the rich, pre-Russian cultures of the Caucasus.  Parajanov’s lack of productivity during the seventies can be attributed to his persecution at the hands of the Soviet government, which imprisoned him on false charges of homosexual rape and propagation of pornography.

The government hated the bizarre and innovative style that Parajanov came to utilize in his movies, a style so utterly unique that it makes Tarkovsky look mainstream by comparison.  Following the logic of dreams and obeying the compositional traditions of Armenian and Persian painting, his films (especially from The Color of Pomegranates onwards) dispense with most considerations of plot and characterization, instead providing the viewer with a rich series of expressive tableaux and oneiric transformations.
I have just seen the last of Parajanov’s four great films, 1988’s Ashik Kerib.  The film follows the adventures of a pre-modern Azeri minstrel (or ashik) who must travel the country in an effort to raise money to win the hand of his beloved, whose wealthy father demands a dowry of precious metals, rather than the talent and good looks possessed by Kerib.  What follows is a series of dance routines, musical performances, allegorical encounters, and enough swirling color to freak out even the most jaded of LSD-consumers.

As is typical of Parajanov’s films, there is no effort to maintain any semblance of realism in Kerib’s adventures.  Here’s a “tiger” he has to confront:

 
And here’s the final shot of the film, which, like the camera in Bergman’s Persona or Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, insistently reminds us that this is a film and that it is governed by the rules of cinema, not reality:

 
As a side-note, I’d like to acknowledge the role of Dodo Abashidze in making this film.  In discussions of Parajanov’s last two films, they’re usually treated as being strictly Parajanovian undertakings, but Abashidze’s name precedes Parajanov’s in the opening credits of Ashik Kerib.  I don’t know what the distribution of labor was, but to ignore Abashidze’s contribution is to do him—and the films—an injustice.

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