Kino has released an impressive 4-disc box set of Soviet-Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov's four most acclaimed films: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), The Color of Pomegranates (1968), The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984), and Ashik Kerib (1988).
Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1990) was, after Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), arguably the most important Soviet filmmaker of his generation. He studied under the revered Alexander Dovzhenko at the prestigious Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. After graduating in 1951, he achieved early success making soviet-realist dramas and documentaries, but he repudiated this work and abandoned soviet realism after seeing Andrei Tarkovsky's first feature film Ivan's Childhood (1962).
The influence of the dream sequences in Ivan's Childhood on Paradjanov's subsequent work is readily apparent. Paradjanov's later films also suggest the crosspollination of ideas and techniques with Luis Buï¿½uel and Federico Fellini. Beyond the surrealism and preoccupation with magic, memory, and spiritualism, Paradjanov's later films also display a unique embrace of ethnography, and a decided bent toward using film as a canvas even at the cost of narrative coherency.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
Paradjanov's first film after breaking with soviet realism was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in 1964. While the most accessible of the four films Paradjanov completed after seeing Ivan's Childhood, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors will still be difficult going for most viewers. Set in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains in pre-Soviet Ukraine, this romantic tragedy incorporates elements of local folklore and Orthodox-Christian ceremony to convey the tale of a boy who falls in love with the daughter of his father's killer. Although the plot is merely a variation on the age-old story of star-crossed lovers, this film is unique for its masterful ethnographical surrealism that infuses every scene. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was well received internationally, but earned Paradjanov the ire of state censors when he refused to incorporate their edits for its domestic release.
The Color of Pomegranates
Paradjanov returned to his cultural homeland of Armenia for his next film. Begun under the title Sayat Nova, upon completion in 1968 it was recut and renamed The Color of Pomegranates by censors and yet still was ultimately withheld from domestic or international release. Despite the ban and re-editing, when it was internationally released fourteen years later, The Color of Pomegranates was hailed by Cahiers du Cinï¿½ma as one of the ten best films of 1982.
The Color of Pomegranates is a lyrical biography of Armenian musician Harutyun Sayatyan (1712-1795). Sayatan, revered in Armenia as the King of Song, composed hundreds of songs of which 220 have survived. Paradjanov gives primacy to the poetic elements of Sayatan's songs over conventional narrative in telling the story of the musician's childhood, one deep love, taking of monastic vows, and death. There is almost no dialogue, with everything of importance either shown or told through song. In sharp contrast to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors which included frantically dizzying camerawork, The Color of Pomegranates has almost none.
Paradjanov and his lead actress prove themselves amazingly multi-versatile. Paradjanov wrote, directed, and edited the film as well as personally designing many of the costumes and sets. Lead actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays at least five roles including that of Sayatan as a youth, his love interest, his benefactor, a mime, and an angel. Remarkably, though distinctly feminine, Chiaureli is convincing in both her male and female roles.
The Legend of Suram Fortress
The rift between Paradjanov and the state continued to widen until he was eventually convicted on trumped up charges pertaining to an alleged homosexual assault on a minor communist party official. He was subsequently sentenced to five years imprisonment, but released after four in part due to a concerted campaign by soviet and foreign filmmakers and writers. After release, Paradjanov continued to face persecution from the state and served another term for bribery. He did not return to filmmaking until 1984 when he was allowed to make The Legend of Suram Fortress.
Based on a Georgian folktale regarding a fortress whose walls would continually subside until a boy was bricked up within them, The Legend of Suram Fortress continues the techniques Paradjanov developed in The Color of Pomegranates fifteen years earlier. Again there is little dialogue or camera movement, and again narrative coherency is sacrificed to poetic beauty.
Having covered Ukrainian, Armenian, and Georgian folklore and culture in his three prior films, Paradjanov's final completed film Ashik Kerib (1988) is set in Azerbaijan and is the the story of a poor man in love with a rich man's daughter. She has agreed to wait 1001 nights for him to raise enough money to pay her dowry. Using this plot as a jumping off point, Paradjanov again explores the use of film as canvas for beautiful imagery and sound which only loosely adheres to his plot.
Paradjanov dedicated Ashik Kerib to the memory of Andrei Tarkovsky who died of lung cancer in 1986. Tragically, Paradjanov succumbed to the same disease in 1990, leaving his final film The Confession unfinished.
Only one film in this box set, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, is being released for the first time on DVD in North America. However, all the films except for The Color of Pomegranates are newly ported from releases by the Russian DVD label RusCiCo (Russian Cinema Council). The ports of The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib are far superior to the prior Kino releases, and owners of those releases will want to upgrade. Unfortunately, the box set merely carries over the poor 2001 release of The Color of Pomegranates.
All of the films are color and are presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Legend of Suram Fortress, and Ashik Kerib, all generally look excellent with rich colors and fine detail, along with removable English, French and Spanish subtitles that are appropriately sized, paced, and placed. While the interlacing of the image is noticeable, generally the image quality on these three titles is excellent. Hairs and debris in the film gate in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are retained, but are not overly distracting.
Unfortunately, the image quality of Color of Pomegranates is fairly poor. The image suffers from significant ghosting, digital noise, blurring and poor coloration, along with ugly burnt in subtitles.
The audio is fairly strong on all of these releases even The Color of Pomegranates.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors provides the Ukrainian audio track in the original mono, a new 5.1 mix, and a Russian 5.1 voiceover mix. The Ukrainian mono and 5.1 mix both sound very good. The Russian voiceover in which a single Russian translator speaks over the still audible Ukrainian 5.1 mix is a curiosity that most will gladly skip.
The Color of Pomegranates offers only the original Armenian mono audio track.
The Legend of Suram Fortress includes the original mono Georgian audio track with a few brief Russian voiceovers to fill in lost original audio material, or a Russian 5.1 voiceover.
Ashik Kerib offers the most audio options with the Azeri/Georgian audio in the original mono and a 5.1 remix, a Russian 5.1 voiceover, a Georgian 5.1 voiceover.
This set includes a number of excellent extras.
The extras on Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors includes Islands (39 min. 2003), a fascinating documentary about Paradjanov and Tarkovsky's friendship and thematic commonalities in their films; Songs (8 min. 1985), a lyrical short without dialogue about religion which is dedicated to Paradjanov; cast and crew filmographies; photo albums of Paradjanov and of his artwork; and, trailers for other films.
The extras on The Color of Pomegranates consist of an early short by Paradjanov, Hago Hovnatanian (10 min. 1965), and Paradjanov: A Requiem (57 min. 1994) which includes a fairly good biography that incorporates a lot of interview material shot shortly before Paradjanov's death.
The extras on The Legend of Suram Fortress includes a 26-minute interview with Paradjanov's widow Svetlana Scherbatyukm; a 9-minute interview with actress Veriko Andzhaparidze; a six-minute featurette The Architecture of Ancient Georgia; cast and crew filmographies; a photo album; and trailers.
The extras on Ashik Kerib consists of a 24-minute documentary on Paradjanov which reuses much of the footage from the documentary included with The Color of Pomegranates; a 12-minute documentary on writer Mikahil Lermontov; a 5-minute featurette, The Minstrel's Song; cast and crew filmographies; a photo album; and trailers.
Sergei Paradjanov's final four completed freature films complied by Kino in this box set are indisputably beautiful surreal ethnographies. Because after Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, narrative coherency was no longer a great concern for Pardjanov, viewers who have difficulty embracing a film in which, for example, pre-soviet harem wives wave plastic machine guns simply because the image struck Pardjanov's fancy will not like these films. One must be willing to engage these films on their terms. They are not about the story so much as the power of image and song. Even viewers that find this notion appealing are encouraged to allow some time to pass between viewing each film. They require commitment, patience, and fresh eyes, but they really are worth it for their unique beauty. For viewers willing to put in the work, Kino's box set The Films of Sergei Paradjanov is highly recommended.