I’m not going to sit here and say that I enjoy watching Soviet film. There is something about the starkness of the scenes and the obtuseness of the characters that I have always found a bit off-putting. But, sometimes (most of the time) being a film scholar is not about being entertained, and the Sergei Paradjanov four-film box set recently released by Kino International is an important addition to any film scholar’s snobbish knowledge.
That is not to say that enjoyment cannot be found in enveloping yourself in Paradjanov’s films. There is a certain mystery behind every scene that pulls you in and never quite releases you. Much like watching Paradjanov’s good friend Tarkovsky, a viewer can feel that they know exactly what is going on in a scene without having any clue about what is really going on. On a basic plot level, the four films in this set make sense. That is, Kino has been able to sum them up nicely on the back on the box. But beyond basic plot, each film is a jumble of history, myth, and references that elude me. Where, in Georgian history, do these elaborate costumes fit in? What is the significance of these Great Danes? Why is he throwing a pomegranate at a blanket? If you expect Paradjanov to reveal the answers to you ignorant Westerners, you’ll be waiting a long time.
Perhaps as famous for his political and personal history as he is for his films, Paradjanov led a tumultuous life. Born of Armenian parents in Georgia and later relocating to Moscow, he was a man of the Soviet world. Yet, despite good reviews by respected scholars, the Soviet Union rejected Paradjanov’s films due to – surprise! – his subversive political intentions and his rejection of Soviet Realism (oh, and the fact that he was bisexual). He was imprisoned in Siberia in the mid 1970s for these accusations and served five years hard labor. All the big names at the time protested his imprisonment (Tarkovskey, Buñuel, and Yves Saint Laurent, to name a few), but – surprise again – the USSR didn’t really care. Paradjanov was in and out of prison until he died in 1990 of cancer. Somehow amid all that hard labor, he was able to produce hundreds of sketches, and other artistic projects in addition to his 16.5 movies (although he claims the eight of those made pre-1964 as “garbage”).
Paradjanov is considered a master of his craft. Film critics and fellow artists alike praise his dreamlike landscapes, his colors, and the way he brought forgotten traditions to life. In this collection this mastery is obvious. Including Paradjanov’s most famous and well-regarded work, “The Color of Pomegranates” (or “Sayat Nova,” 1969), this collection is representative of Paradjanov’s complete artistry. “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1964, his only work the Soviet government apparently had no qualms with), “Ashik Kerib” (1988), and “The Legend of Suram Fortress” (1984) demonstrate Paradjanov’s wide range of color and imagery while also showing his similarity in themes and source material.
In addition to these four films – two of them newly remastered in 2008 – this collection also includes a vast array of extras. Multiple documentaries will provide you with all the information I have written on Paradjanov’s character and political background, and much much more. I dare you not to be a Paradjanov expert after watching the hours of footage, photographs, and interviews available here.
Not liking Soviet cinema is silly. There is so much to like here: giant camels, silly masks, swords…Not to mention how smart you’ll look with “The Films of Sergei Paradjanov” sitting on your DVD rack.