Georgia-born, ethnic-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov was acclaimed by Godard, Antonioni and Fellini as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. But in a career spanning almost 40 years his filmography boasted – apart from a handful of documentaries and shorts – just nine feature films. Of these he effectively disowned the first four and the last was incomplete at his death. What’s more, Parajanov produced nothing at all between 1968 and 1984.
However, as we shall see, it wasn’t a creative block which kept Parajanov out of cinemas.
Born in Tbilisi on this day in 1924, Parajanov studied film in Moscow after the War. On graduating in 1951 he made a children’s short film which was reworked to become his first feature. His next three films covered themes like the Great Patriotic War, romance between Young Communist League members and a mining village menaced by the spectre of religion. While accomplished, and often showing the formal brilliance which had distinguished pre-war Soviet filmmaking, in both style and subject matter they generally adhered to the prescribed Socialist Realism which Parajanov came to disdain.
It was only with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, made in the Ukraine in 1964, that Parajanov found his own voice. The film focussed on themes of “ethnography, God, love and tragedy”, qualities hardly designed to delight apparatchiks in isolation let alone in combination. Everything about it – religious imagery, stylistic audacity, preoccupation with cultural practices which predated the monolithic Soviet state – marked Parajanov out as a visionary artist in the West and a dangerous dissident at home.
Parajanov’s 1968 film Sayat Nova (released in English-speaking territories as The Colour of Pomegranates) is his undisputed masterpiece. It is all the more remarkable for the challenging technical conditions under which it was made, shot with available light and without effects. Though it has almost no dialogue it does have a clear narrative curve, following the life of the titular 18th century Armenian poet.
The entire film is composed of tableaux from a fixed vantage point, with poses, gestures and actions uncannily evoking icons and other sacred artworks. While the eccentric framing, bizarre juxtapositions and fetishistic focus on objects seem indebted to Surrealism, Sayat Nova dealt in imagery which issued from a collective cultural consciousness rather than private obsessions. Parajanov freely adapted rituals and iconography to get at their essence, in an attempt to return a folk-religious heritage to its people, believers and non-believers alike.
All of this was inflammatory enough, but even worse was Parajanov’s outspoken criticism of Soviet cinema. He spoke of “kilometres of wasted film” and a “total devaluation of qualities in the cinematic arts”, describing Soviet films of the time (including his own) as “cardiograms of fear”. Attacking state-sanctioned art was as bad as attacking the state itself, a dangerous undertaking in the Soviet Union. What’s more, Parajanov spoke up bravely for other dissidents.
The authorities had hobbled Sayat Nova, cutting it and all but preventing it from reaching screens and the director’s subsequent attempts to get film projects off the ground came to nought. But a free Parajanov was still a dangerous Parajanov. His relatively open bisexuality gave the regime something to work with, but perhaps fearing that mere consensual sexual activity wasn’t sufficient to blacken his name in the public arena, they added trumped-up charges of coercion as well as bribery and dealing in stolen goods.
In 1973 Parajanov was arrested and imprisoned; he would eventually serve just over four years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. “But instead of falling apart,” said Parajanov, “I wrote four screenplays.”
These activities were supplemented by a remarkable second career as a visual artist, working mainly with collage. His father had been an antique dealer, and Parajanov visited flea markets throughout his life; collections of diverse visual elements within a flat plane, as if found accidentally assembled on a market stand, are a feature of both his artworks and of his later films. High and low culture collide and Parajanov’s own image recurs frequently, suggesting a cult of his own personality. Parajanov was never burdened by false modesty, and in interviews proudly trumpeted his own achievements, listing awards and citations.
During Parajanov’s imprisonment it was above all French artists and intellectuals who ensured the world did not forget about him. His work had always had particular resonance in France, and Louis Aragon, writer and co-founder of Surrealism, was instrumental in Parajanov’s release from prison in 1977. But although free, Parajanov was not free to make films. And so he practiced something like the “inner migration” which was a tactic of tacit protest by many writers and artists under the Nazi regime and later in East Germany.
Only in 1984 with the release of The Legend of Suram Forest did Parajanov finally return to the screen, his inventive vigour evidently undiminished. Thanks to Perestroika he was even allowed to leave the Soviet Union for the very first time in 1988. He took his film Ashik Kerib to the Munich Film Festival, where he addressed an audience with tears in his eyes, saying “I would like to die after this film because I am very fond of it.”
And it would indeed become his last completed film; Sergei Parajanov died in 1990.
The film he was working on at the time of his death, The Confession, was compiled with other footage into Parajanov: The Last Spring. Meanwhile a biopic of Parajanov is in production, directed by fellow Armenian Anna Melikyan, whose 2007 film Mermaid attracted favourable notices.
Sadly, of course, the kind of persecution suffered by Parajanov still goes on.
Part 1 of a documentary about Parajanov featuring footage from his 1988 Munich visit; click through for further parts: