Nesting Figures of the Past: The Legend of Suram Fortress (Sergei Parajanov, 1984)
The Georgian legend about a youth bricked up alive in the wall of Suram Fortress inspired many writers and filmmakers before Sergei Parajanov.1 In his cinematic rendering of this legend, Parajanov uses the camera as a paintbrush. The prologue of the film introduces the main subject – the construction of the Suram fortress – as well as the means by which this legend will be rendered. Central in this prologue is the still life-like shot of the six wooden buckets filled with diverse construction materials and arranged as if on a palette. These construction materials of diverse colors include the main ingredient for tempera painting – eggs. Egg tempera was particularly widely used in medieval paintings such as Orthodox icons and Persian miniatures.2 The eggs in the prologue allude above all to these medieval painterly traditions, which, in turn, serve as the main visual reference throughout the film. When a character in the subsequent scene mixes these construction materials on a wooden board, he prepares not only for the construction of the fortress but at the same time for the creation of the film by painterly means. As though to reinforce this overlap between the painterly rendition of the film and the construction of the fortress, the crumbling of the fortress shown in the opening credits is expressed as an assault on the camera lens, which captured this fortress in black and white documentary style. Right after the shattering of this black and white shot a meticulously constructed and richly colored tableau opens, synthesising in one shot almost all the subsequent visual and aural motives of the film.
The story of the film interweaves two narrative lines: one storyline centres on an ambitious young serf, Durmishkhan, and his lover Gulisvardi (Vardo), whom he abandons for a richer wife and freedom. Later Vardo becomes a fortuneteller and advises Durmishkhan’s son Zurab to brick himself up in the fortress wall in order to prevent it from crumbling. The second storyline revolves around Osman-Agha, a Muslim merchant who turns out to be, like Durmishkhan, a former serf and Orthodox Georgian called Nodar. If Durmishkhan, in a way, has to sacrifice his son for the betrayal of Vardo; Nodar, at least on the surface, has to perform a sacrifice for the betrayal of his religion and the native land. These two storylines – one unfolding in the present tense and another one presented more as a set of flashbacks – not only intersect (Osman-Agha will become Durmishkhan’s benefactor) but more importantly they mirror each other. The fact that most of the events in this film are performed on two circular outdoor stages positioned symmetrically contributes to the sense of the mirrored repetition. In addition to these two main stories, most of the visual motifs and events, as well as the characters and their actions in the film, are mirrored, doubled or sometimes tripled. These multiple repetitions permeate the film and create a sense of a world in which figures are reincarnated or nested within each other (like in a matrioshka doll) and time swings as a pendulum instead of progressing forward.
We can see this kind of sense of the world most vividly in the image of Vardo. Within her is nested the figure of the elderly fortuneteller, whose death coincides with the awakening of Vardo as the new fortuneteller. Vardo’s character also overlaps with the image of Saint Nino, the enlightener of Georgia, who is introduced in the film as a puppet used in history lessons given to little Zurab. This puppet, wearing blue attire and hanging against an aquamarine blue background, reappears right before the last shot of Vardo, who similarly is captured against a blue background. This background is a blanket Vardo made for newly born Zurab. At the end of the film, the blanket is brought to the wall of the fortress to express sorrow over Zurab’s sacrifice. The visual and metaphorical affinity that creates a sense of nestedness of the fortuneteller and Saint Nino within Vardo’s figure allows us to interpret Vardo’s revenge for Durmishkhan’s betrayal – the main motivation for Zurab’s immurement given in Chonkadze’s novella – as a ritual of religious sacrifice. This overlap between the figures of the two fortunetellers and the Orthodox saint is indicative of a larger trait of the film that shows pagan, Orthodox, and Muslim identities and rituals as nested within each other while leaving their borders fluid. This way of addressing the issue of different religious (and national) identities on the surface conforms to, but in principle and style deviates from the Soviet cultural politics that promoted friendship of people in the hierarchically organised multi-national state. In Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa (The Legend of Suram Fortress, 1985), the borders of multiple identities are playfully transgressed to suggest that “the world is one and united” (as one of the characters in the film declares), but not in a hierarchical unity that presupposes historical progression.
The sense of time and history suggested in the film reinforces this nested structure with fluid borders. In the episode tellingly entitled “The Run of Time”, the maturation of a young Vardo is expressed through her pendulum-like motion, which allows her younger self to remain visible behind the shoulders of her mature self. The slow swinging motion of a young Vardo first and then of her mature counterpart, while one is seated behind another, resembles the rhythmical motion of a metronome. This metronome-like motion helps to undermine the sense of linear historical progression (a prerequisite not only for Socialist Realism) and instead suggests a temporality marked by rhythmical repetition where past and present are nested within each other. 3
The peculiarity of the world created in this film becomes more compelling when we consider its visual composition, which invokes non-perspectival medieval paintings like Persian miniatures and Orthodox icons. The judicious use of color, ornamental details, and symmetrically constructed and conspicuously flattened non-perspectival space runs counter to cinematic conventions and strikingly resembles medieval paintings. This visual composition amplifies the sense of non-linear temporality and nestedness within pictorially constructed frames. Parajanov’s hybridisation of the painterly and cinematic mediums – one of the remarkable features of his films – enables him to transform the conventional ways of representing national identity and history in the multi-national Soviet state. The mesmerising world recreated in The Legend of Suram Fortress stimulates the senses and provokes thoughts that allow us to reimagine the intricacy of Georgian cultural legacy and to appreciate its beauty in an elaborate, non-essentialist fashion.
Released in 1985, The Legend of Suram Fortress is a film made after fifteen years of silence, during which Parajanov was imprisoned and kept from filmmaking due to political and aesthetic disagreements with state authorities. The audacious experimentation with cinematic conventions and national themes (as well as the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic and transgressive behavior), which were not tolerated fifteen years earlier, 4 were now generously accepted. This change was possible thanks to both the loosened censorship during the Perestroika period, more generally, and the favorable conditions at the Georgia Film studio, in particular. 5 To protect a controversial director like Parajanov and the studio that hired him from potential criticism by the centre, a prominent Georgian actor, David “Dodo” Abashidze, was assigned as a co-director of this film. Abashidze, who played Osman Agha and Simon the Piper in this film, again appeared as a co-director and actor in Parajanov’s next and last film Ashik Kerib (1987).
- The best-known version of the legend is Daniel Chonkadze’s novella Suramis tsikhe (The Suram Fortress, 1860), which serves as a basis for Ivan Perestiani’s1922 film of the same title. Parajanov’s version mainly follows Chonkadze’s plot, while adding motifs of martyrdom and patriotic sacrifice from Niko Lordkipanidze’s novella Kedukhrelni (The Inflexible) and David Suliashvili’s story Zurabis thsikhe (Zurab’s Fortress), both written during the Soviet period. ↩
- Tempera was superseded by oil painting during the Renaissance. ↩
- In Nran Guyne (The Color of Pomegranates, 1969), the protagonist, little boy Arutiun, also performs pendulum-like motion to allude to the passage of time. Similar to Vardo’s maturation, the maturation from a boy Arutiun to a young poet Sayat Nova is expressed through hiding of the boy behind the back of the youth. ↩
- Parajanov’s previous film Sayat Nova was severely censored, reedited and had a limited release under the title The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Made at the Armenia Film Studio, it was an extremely experimental and stunningly beautiful film about a Transcaucasian medieval troubadour. ↩
- The Georgia Film Studio benefited largely from the protection of Eduard Shevarnadze, then the first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia. ↩