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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

The Color of Cinema

Soviet-era surrealism

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Sergei Parajanov was less interested in telling stories than plunging the viewer into the world, the consciousness, of his protagonists. The Soviet Armenian director paid a high price for the persistence of his vision. Hounded by censors and jailed repeatedly, Parajanov managed nonetheless to complete nearly a dozen films before his death in 1990. The international acclaim he earned on the film festival circuit in the 1960s and ’70s prevented the Communist authorities from doing their worst.

Milwaukee will have a rare opportunity to see two of Parajanov’s most renowned films on the big screen when the UW- Milwaukee Union Theatre presents Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, Feb. 22-24. Parajanov was fascinated by the power of myth to release the imagination from bondage to everyday, time-bound existence.

In The Color of Pomegranates (1968), Parajanov explored the mythology of Armenia through one of that country’s great cultural figures. The director applied the insights of Surrealism to engulf the viewer in the mythic. Pomegranates follows the 18th-century poet, priest and troubadour Sayat Nova from childhood through his life and legacy.

The film works as a ritual composed in the dreams of a protagonist deeply engraved with the culture of a land perched at the rim of Byzantium and Persia. The architecture of the Armenian Orthodox Church forms a distinct part of Nova’s imagination and natural surroundings. The modest stony structures covered in bas-reliefs are rocky outcroppings on the hilly terrain. Tufts of grass sprout from their squat, conical cupolas.

As a boy Nova was surrounded by learning and encouraged by clerics to devour knowledge. In one of the film’s memorable scenes, he sits at the center of converging planes covered with open books, their pages rippling forward at the hand of the unseen wind. Spirituality and sensuality are woven as one, unsurprising in a religious tradition that relies on the physical senses as windows to divine experience. Solemn chanting is heard along with the piping music of celebration. Stringed instruments twirl in space beyond the reach of musicians.

Color suffuses the scenes, often against a backdrop of its absence. The gestures are often as stylized as Kabuki theater. As in a liturgy, there are recurring images and motifs. Periodically the screen is filled with Nova’s words inscribed in the curvaceous Armenian alphabet. “We were searching for ourselves in each other,” went one of his verses. Truer words of love were never written.

Where The Color of Pomegranates’ Surrealism is sensuous yet cerebral, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) pushes Surrealism into a Dionysian frenzy. Set in a remote corner of 19th-century Russia, the protagonist, Ivan, is a poor village boy in love with the daughter of the town’s wealthiest citizen. Although Shadows elliptically pursues Ivan’s life, the texture of that life rather than the events is what makes an impression.

Constructed from startling camera angles and odd close-ups, Shadows depicts rural Russia as a hurly-burly Bacchanal where shamanism and Russian Orthodoxy, animal-masked dancers and chanting priests, coexist in a world close to nature. Vodka and magic are the portals to other realities.

Parajanov might not have been aware of developments in Western pop culture, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was a foretaste of psychedelia and the acid-trip movies to come out of Europe and America during the ‘60s. It probably passed the Soviet censors because of its reference to class antagonism in pre-Revolutionary Russia even as it promoted a vision at odds with the materialism the Soviet system was based upon.
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