The Poetry of Filmmaking

The cinema of Soviet director Sergei Parajanov

Nov. 13, 2013
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Most filmmakers are prosaic, telling stories in straightforward cinematic language. Every now and then a poet emerges, creating vivid images that convey a deeper reality through the medium of moviemaking. Sergei Parajanov was among the poets, and was responsible for several startling films under the Soviet system.

As James Steffen points out in The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov (published by University of Wisconsin Press), for all his difficulties, Parajanov’s crucial films, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, could not have been made in Hollywood. The Soviet studios were happy to win accolades on the international film festival circuit and since they did not operate under a market economy, the profit motive was less important. On the other hand, the USSR was not the workers’ paradise for creative workers regarded as dissidents or suspected of harboring forbidden thoughts. Parajanov was arrested for homosexuality, and while he was apparently broadminded in his sexual pursuits, the charges were probably politically motivated.

A film librarian at Emory University, Steffen has written the first full-length study in English on the subject, drawing from archives in the former USSR but especially from Soviet periodicals. The author did remarkable work in reconstructing the director’s world. Like Rouben Mamoulian, who became successful in Hollywood and Broadway, Parajanov was raised in Tiblisi, Georgia, then a polyglot, cosmopolitan city. His career began at a Ukrainian studio, where he made his first great film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964). Set in a remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains, where sorcery, devils and forest spirits haunted the villagers, Shadows drew from the area’s folk arts, including wood carvings and embroidery, for tableau-like compositions that destabilized the viewers’ sense of time and space “to present a tale that operates not at the level of narrative but of myth.”

His most personal film, The Color of Pomegranates (1969), drew from the legacy of Tiblisi, which had also been home in centuries past to the Armenian troubadour-poet-priest Sayat-Nova. It was anything but a straightforward biographical picture. Pomegranates showed the world as Sayat-Nova might have imagined it, jump cutting between tableaux grounded in Armenian sacred and folk art and accompanied by a score that amplified the impression that viewers were gaining access to an ancient, vibrant past.

The Color of Pomegranates ran into censorship problems, with Soviet authorities complaining of everything from female nudity to pro-religious sentiments. That old Stalinist charge of “formalism” was rolled out like a canon pointed at any artist more concerned with aesthetics than in edifying the masses with a simple story. And yet a version close to Parajanov’s vision was released and earned accolades from prominent foreign filmmakers. When Parajanov was arrested in 1973, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Roberto Rossellini, Jules Dassin, Luchino Visconti, Francois Truffaut and others signed a petition calling for his release.

Outspoken and eccentric, Parajanov probably would have had fewer problems if he kept his head down and worked quietly. But in that case, he might never have summoned the will to make films that shattered expectations of what cinema could achieve.


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