Westerners know next to nothing about Armenia. A former Soviet republic turned independent state, the last time the nascent country with its ancient population was in the news was because of the devastating earthquake it suffered shortly after achieving independence. By the derisive comments of the villagers in the highly unusual documentary “Frescoes,” it’s hard to tell which event, independence or the earthquake, was more devastating.
The film follows the day-to-day lives of such ordinary townsfolk as a seventy-something gravedigger who’s celebrating his birthday, a stonemason, a stern but compassionate priest, and a young boy who’s more grown up than his years would indicate. Russian director Alexander Gutman’s stylistically foreign film is unlike the documentaries we typically see here in the States. Devoid of any narration or even any real narrative structure per se, the film is more of a real time motion picture slide show of the country than anything else. Call it an Armenian “Real World.”
Filled with poignant imagery of one impoverished village and its inhabitants, “Frescoes” draws the viewer into a simple lifestyle, which is totally alien to us. In spite of the language and cultural barriers, Gutman’s film succeeds in getting us to care about fellow human beings who are otherwise foreign in every sense of the word. Although “Frescoes” is way too long at ninety-six minutes, especially given its, er, stately pace, this unusual film is nonetheless a fascinating study of an absolutely foreign slice of life.