162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)

Ambavi Suramis Tsikhitsa; Legend of the Surami Fortress (alternate translation)

“In Ron Holloway’s reverent documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem… an unbowed Paradjanov speaks nonchalantly of being accused of ‘surrealism,’ never pointing out the surreality of a government that views surrealism as a crime.”–Keith Phipps

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sergei Parajanov, Dodo Abashidze

FEATURING: Leila Alibegashvilli, Sofiko Chiaureli, Zura Kipshidze, Dodo Abashidze, Veriko Andjaparidze

PLOT: On the desolate steppes of Central Asia, a Georgian prince has given slave Durmishkhan his freedom; although he promises to make his fortune and buy her freedom, his lover, Vardo, senses that he will never return. Indeed, in his travels Durmishkhan meets another woman and fathers a child with her, while a bereaved Vardo becomes a celibate fortune teller. Years later, with a Muslim invasion imminent, the czar seeks guidance from Vardo on how to stop the fortress of Suram from collapsing every time his men rebuild it.

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was Sergei Parajanov’s first film after spending 15 years in and out of Soviet prisons on charges ranging from homosexuality, rape, and pornography to bribery and trafficking in religious icons. Many view his persecution as politically motivated. Along with intellectuals and celebrities like , fellow filmmakers , François Truffaut, , , Michelangelo Antonioni, and  all agitated for his release.
  • Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of Parajanov’s major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolved around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) dealt with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress covered the mythology of his native Georgia. Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • Although the movie bears all of Parajanov’s stylistic trademarks, Dodo Abashidze (who also plays the role of Osman-Agha in the film) is credited as co-director, as he is also in Parajanov’s final completed film, Ashik Kerib. Abashidze has no solo directing credits but was a popular actor, and his influence is viewed as a major factor in getting Parajanov released from jail and allowed to return to filmmaking.
  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was based on Georgian folktales which had been turned into a novel by the writer Daniel Chonkadze in the 19th century. The story had been made into a silent film in 1922.
  • The Suram (or Surami) fortress still stands in Georgia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This is a hard choice indeed: The Legend of Suram Fortress is a work of visual poetry, and picking out a single frame is like picking out the single best line from “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” Each scene in Suram is a meticulous exercise in staging, pageantry, and costuming. For our representative moment, we’ll chose the ceremony where the peasants pray to St. George to protect them from the (metaphorical Muslim) dragon: costumed worshipers parade by in a line, led by a prancing white horse decorated with silvery tinsel, before a smoky field, while the Saint’s icon appears as a glittering ball of light. The scene is low-tech but beautiful, literally realized with smoke and mirrors. In a movie with such a rigorously realized formalism, almost any other choice of image would be equally indelible.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fans of will likely to groove to the vibe of Sergei Parajanov, recognizing the obsessively arranged compositions and the mysticism that hangs like thick clouds of incense over the film. Rather than taking a wide-angle, pan-theistic view like Jodorowsky, however, Parajanov focuses each of his films narrowly and intently on the legends of a single culture. In Suram Fortress he digs deep to uncover fragmentary narrative relics from ancient Georgia, telling of the legendary foundation of a nation in a confused era when Christianity, Islam and paganism all fought for the hearts of her people. Soaking in a bath of exotic medieval sounds and images, you emerge from the movie feeling Georgia in your bones, while at the same time realizing you know next to nothing about the culture Parajanov simultaneously illuminates and obscures. The visions crumble before your eyes as he builds them.


The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody discusses The Legend of Suram Fortress

COMMENTS: Although there is a (digressive and fractured) story, the essence of The Legend of Suram Fortress is in its astounding visual tableaux: scenes of princes in full regalia holding court on hillsides, acrobats walking high wires while sailing ships hover in midair, and fortresses built with eggs beat into the foundation. The movie whisks us off to the windswept steppes of Central Asia for a slideshow of an ancient kingdom that never was. Almost every scene is staged ritualistically; whether they’re dancing for the czar in a Mongol courtyard or conceiving a child (fully clothed) on a blanket in a field filled with roving chickens, the characters’ movements are always carefully controlled, artificial and deliberate. Aggressively stylized, with few lines of dialogue but many dreamlike digressions, watching Suram Fortress is like flipping through a beautiful old illustrated fairy tale storybook written in a language we don’t understand.

Most of the action takes place on plains and hillsides decorated by wheat-colored grass and gray stone walls, with many scenes shot inside and around the Suram fortress itself. In the movie, the princes and the people conduct almost all their business out-of-doors; the only interiors of significance are a chapel and the fortune teller’s darkened hut. Colorful, sensual objects abound: bright blue peacock feathers, hookahs, baskets of fruit. More startling are the animals that casually share this landscape with the Georgians: not only livestock, chickens and horses, but also a menagerie from the improbable (stuffed leopards) to the impossible (New World beasts like turkeys and llamas). Parajanov’s carefully constructed compositions, which often look like still life paintings gently rippling in the breeze, are almost neurotically symmetrical. A scene where the Arab merchant Osman-Agha recounts his “pomegranate torture” provides an excellent example of  the director’s fascinating, almost fetishistic arrangement of the frame.  In the foreground, two reclining hounds lie on a rug flanking the basket of red fruit. Young Osman-Agha stands in the center, before the pomegranates, as two nobles in black on either side of him point their scimitars at his shoulders. The victim stands directly in front of a tapestry, which hangs between two statues which decorate the wall behind him. This studied arrangement is as peculiar as the tale the merchant tells of the game the drunken nobles play: they force him to toss the fruit in the air, where they slice it with the blades so that the juice splatters in his eyes. A realistic recreation of medieval interrogation techniques, this is not.

The soundscapes are every bit as exotic as the pictures. There are ouds, unfamiliar instruments that sound like bagpipes, female vocalists warbling calls to prayer, and even moments of early electronica. In an early scene we watch peasants going about their daily affairs in the courtyard and terraces of the fortress. A fast-paced pipe and percussion tune fades into a slow reedy drone, then fades back in, like someone is switching a radio dial back and forth between two Middle Eastern stations. The climactic sacrifice features a church pipe organ played in a disturbingly minor key. Musically, the movie reflects the melange of influences on this cultural crossroads that was historically invaded by the Mongols from the east, the Arabs from the south, the Greeks from the west and the Russians from the north.

The incidents that make up the story are every bit as fantastic as the movie’s sensory elements. Aside from the mythic folktale aspects like the eternally crumbling fortress, the prophetic call for sacrifice, and the heavy miasma of fate that hangs over the doomed heroine, the movie is packed with decorative narrative curlicues of Parajanov’s invention. Medieval performance artists—mimes and tightrope walkers—show up in the background of scenes. In one interlude, two characters who have no other function in the story pretend to be a butterfly and a grasshopper, respectively; they helpfully repeat “I’m a butterfly!,” “I’m a grasshopper!” over and over. There’s a moment when the merchant prince Osman-Agha accuses his subjects of secretly making him drunk with a “black intoxicant”; in his delirium he grabs a child, which turns into a lamb in his arms. Later, he will have an extensive death-dream which partly involves robed figures waving bolts of blue silk cloth to simulate waves. When a boy has a vision of invading forces, he sees the army rolling down a hill, scattering a flock of sheep. A woman ticks her head like a metronome. For the most part, these surreal moments feel like an authentic relics of the mythical alternate history Parajanov creates; they are residues of the magic of the ancient world, incomprehensible to us today.

Suram Fortress is suffused with religious feeling, although it is just as culturally confused as the story is. Georgia fell variously under the sway of Mongols, Arabs, and finally the Greek Orthodox Christians (the country is named for St. George of dragon slaying fame). Suram Fortress reflects, and even celebrates, this motley heritage. Characters convert from Christianity to Islam and back; Christians act like pagans, sacrificing animals to Saints. When “Piper Simon” gives a child his Georgian catechism, he includes, among the Christian saints, a mention of the Greek titan Prometheus. The final act of sacrifice of a young man which shores up the fortress and saves Georgia for the Christians mirrors Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but the boy invokes the name of “Mother Earth” as he entombs himself (this invocation is followed by a shot of the doll representing Saint Nino, the woman who introduced Christianity to Georgia). The Islamic and Christian influences are constantly at war in medieval Georgia, but neither of them are capable of completely supplanting the old magical folk beliefs, which appropriate the rituals of the organized religions for their own purposes, living on in their monotheistic hosts. Perhaps it is precisely this ritual mixture of paganism and Christianity, earth and gold, that shores up the foundation of the Georgian civilization; the fortress could not stand without the reverence for the land and its traditions, but it continued to crumble until a voluntary Christian sacrifice folded himself into its walls.

In matters of religion, the characters of Suram Fortress fluctuate in their core beliefs. But the one thing that unites the people is not their belief in a particular god, but their loyalty to their fellow tribesmen, their faith in their own nationhood. Suram Fortress plays, if anything, like a rallying call to Georgian pride and nationalism, a reminder that the people can unite and beat back their oppressors. Even in the era of glasnost, it’s astounding that something this politically provocative would be allowed to be made in the Soviet Union. Perhaps Parajanov’s surrealism really was a cover for a subversive message, just as the authorities feared when they jailed him on trumped-up charges in the 1970s.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie plays like folk performance art — a mixture of primitive and postmodern impulses. It’s entrancing, at times, but inscrutable.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“…maddeningly elliptical and enigmatic, ponderously slow, and generally incomprehensible.”–TV Guide

“…distills the narrative into a sequence of elliptical and densely layered compositions that interweave primitive, folkloric, mythologic, (Eastern Orthodoxy) religious, and (sociopolitical) allegorical imagery into a somber and pensive, yet resilient and affirming visual tapestry…”–Acquarello, Strictly Film School (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Legend of Suram Fortress at Mubi – Reader comments on the movie, and links to related movies and to lists mentioning Suram Fortress

The Legend of Suram Fortress on Tumblr - Stills and animated .gifs of the film submitted by Tumblr users

DVD INFO: The 2008 Kino “Special Edition” DVD (buy) is reconstructed from the best prints possible. Part of the original soundtrack was destroyed in a fire, and therefore about four minutes of the soundtrack here comes from a version with a Russian voiceover. It’s not a big distraction, considering the slight amount of dialogue and how strange the rest of the movie is. There are quite a few extras, most importantly an interview with Sergei Parajanov’s widow. There’s also a profile of actress Veriko Andjaparidze, who played the small role of the original fortune teller but who was nonetheless top billed in the movie, along with a featurette on Georgian architecture and a gallery of stills. Filmographies of the major cast and crew sometimes have pictures with clickable triangles in them; these lead to trailers for other features, including one for Parajanov’s Ashik Kerib. (Not sure whether these count as Easter Eggs or not, since they’re not announced or advertised but they’re not particularly hidden either). Suram Fortress is also available from Kino in a 2001 dual disc edition together with Ashik Kerib (buy), but buyer beware: the print used to prepare that version is washed out and lifeless compared to the Special Edition. A better purchase would be to buy Kino’s Parajanov box set (buy), which includes this disc together with the director’s three other major features: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Color of Pomegranates, and Ashik Kerib.

The Legend of Suram Fortress is also available for purchase or rental on demand (free to Amazon Prime customers).

4 thoughts on “162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)”

  1. I”m happy you’ve done this and perfectly. Love your sound paragraph. About “The scene is low-tech but beautiful”: for Parajanov technicalities in terms of modern film production technology were of minor interest. He strives to reach the necessary effects with as less as possible “modernalities”, more primitive as his stories were about the primitive times.

    One more cultural reference: “A woman ticks her head like a metronome.” It’s to Chinese culture. There were such Chinese, often female dolls, made of porcelain or clay ticking their heads like a metronome. Chinese powder, silk, porcelain tableware, etc. were brought to Georgia by the Chinese merchants, and Chinese dances, music were popular among common people and at the courts. I dare to think this lady ticking is a reference to all that….

    It’s a pity that the TV Guide labeled the movie as “generally incomprehensible” thus depriving the US audience of the pleasure to get deep inside into the gist of the movie and enjoy it.

  2. Good review, but just one thing I’d like to point out. Oriental Orthodox Christians still maintain the old tradition and rituals of animal sacrifice, so it’s not at all “pagan”, as it comes form the earliest Christianity.

    Best wishes

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