It’s a very large box for a very short film. Maybe you find that challenging, or intimidating, or mind-numbing, or somewhere between all three. If so, I’m not exactly sweetening the pot if I tell you that the film is a series of oblique, poetic tableaux vivants that symbolically illustrate the inner and outer life of the 18th century Armenian troubadour-cum-martyr Sayat-Nova. I’ll admit— jaw clenched, twenty minutes in with another hour left to go, I worried that there couldn’t possibly be enough special features on two discs to explain what I was seeing; I was going to need a bigger box.
But if you’re willing to put in a bit more effort than you would with any old masterpiece from the Soviet Union’s ‘poetic cinema’ movement, you might find some surprising rewards. There are the obvious, surface pleasures, from director Sergei Parajanov’s meticulously arranged compositions and colours to Sofika Chiarelli’s smouldering double performance as Sayat Nova’s muse, Princess Ana, and the poet himself as a young man. Going a bit deeper, there’s the unfamiliar tang of Parajanov’s own brand of surrealism, heavily indebted both to medieval religious art and long-standing folk traditions. It’s not just the indoor flocks of sheep, flying church spires or angels with antler-wings that leave a lasting impression— there’s also the metronomic rhythms of the film’s editing, the impressionistic jump-cuts, the soundtrack that treats music like Foley while turning Foley into music.
But if you watch the film cold, not knowing anything about the national hero of Armenia’s culture and religion at its centre, all that it has to offer on first viewing might not be enough. If your bewilderment turns to frustration, you have a strange series of censorship decisions to blame: at first censors objected to the fact that the film claimed to describe the life of Sayat-Nova, despite its poetic abstraction, and asked for all references to the poet to be removed. The film’s current title is a substitute in that vein, but the main victims were the intermittent title cards which grounded each of the film’s sections into a salient biographical detail, and described the forthcoming action in simple terms— a handy guide that enabled even the culturally clued-up Armenian audience of the time to ground the film’s symbolism in relatable situations and emotions. The censors asked for these to be replaced with more ‘poetic’ intertitles.
But then a sympathetic film director on the censorship board recut the film in order for it to be eligible for release in the rest of the Soviet Union, and faced the opposite problem— having been stripped of its references to history, the film was unpalatably poetic for mainstream consumption. So he recut it with more straightforward text, removed certain scenes because of their religious or bawdy content and rearranged others. This Russian version was, for a long time, the only one easily available; but thanks to this blu-ray set, the earlier Armenian version finally rivals it in picture quality. That said, I must admit that the overly green and faded colour palette of the restoration, especially on the latter version, is a disappointment. And because of the above-mentioned issues, neither version fulfils the director’s vision of a ‘poetic’ film anchored by clearly spelt-out biographical detail.
I say all this, because I think one of the most important things a reviewer can do when approaching such a hefty blu-ray, offering two competing versions of the same film, is give advice on how exactly to approach the box as a whole. My advice might prove controversial: watch the Armenian version first, but don’t watch it with English subtitles— watch it with James Steffen’s excellent annotated (not audio, just subtitles) commentary. There’s not all that much dialogue to understand, so you won’t especially miss those subtitles first time round, and what’s really important is giving coherent shape to the dreamlike imagery; I don’t buy the idea that you should approach potentially confusing foreign films like some gap-year tourist on an ersatz vision quest, gawking at everything and appreciating nothing.
For all its surrealism, this is by no means a stoner movie or a trip. Parajanov was a compulsive rearranger of objects— while in casual conversation, he was known to compose and re-compose tableaux using whatever objects he found on the table, and then ask his interlocutor to do the same, to see what kinds of arrangements they were drawn to. And thanks to the cultural status of the film’s subject, he was able to procure genuinely valuable, sometimes ancient artefacts and artworks for use in the film. Parajanov’s interest in this art and iconography is much more aesthetic and material than it is spiritual, but what he achieves splashing about in the shallows is more than many directors could hope for with an entire ocean to explore. On top of that, the soundtrack features carefully chosen music selections relevant to the story. A few of Sayat Nova’s own songs are present, but not at the expense of others that illuminate the film’s sense of time and place, like a medieval Scorsese soundtrack. All of them are remixed and chopped up in a strikingly modern way, giving the impression that they are echoing inside the protagonist’s head, shifting and distorting their initial meanings.
This was the first finished film Parajanov made where he essentially put the cinematographer out of business, in playfully self-centred defiance of the idea that the film required any genius except his own. The result is a largely still camera straightforwardly facing the action, in imitation of early medieval paintings, Armenian miniatures and dioramas. Someone in one of the special features calls it ‘distractingly picturesque’, and it very often is, but it’s also minimalist and allusive— you are free to get lost in it, but it’s also crying out to be carefully poured over and examined, asking for the viewer to consider the contrasts, confluences and contradictions between the people, props and sounds in each scene. Steffen’s annotations will lay the groundwork, and then you can watch it again in unadulterated form, armed with some interesting tidbits, and smile the smug grin of a regular smartypants.
I’m not trying to reduce the experience to an academic exercise; in fact, what I’m advising will hopefully allow you to move beyond mere curiosity or intellectual interest: once you know the basics of what’s happening, of what everything might represent, you can start appreciating the film’s earthy humour; its seductive, markedly queer, decidedly non-Western sensuality; and its elegiac treatment of ageing, grief, exile and humiliation. At one point Sayat-Nova retreats to a monastery after a failed love affair, and goes about trying to avoid all earthly temptation. A hilarious scene ensues where a group of monks, posed in tiers as if for a school photo, all suggestively eat pomegranates while Sayat-Nova, off to the side, tries stoically to put up with this assault on his senses. The sound design is Lynchian in its squelchy suggestiveness.
Director Sergei Parajanov was perpetually in trouble with the authorities, this being his last major work before he was imprisoned for some combination of homosexuality (outlawed at the time) with rape, pornography and bribery charges, those last three commonly asserted to have been fabricated. His Sayat-Nova is often fabulously dressed; partly acted by a woman and then a (male) ballet dancer, both of whose elegant, precise gestures speak volumes, especially combined with the still waters running deep that are their eyes.
This is one of those rare ‘arthouse’ films that truly embraces the pre-cinema tradition of visual art without embarrassment or reservation, yet would also make a great double bill with the Olympic figure skating; it’s a work of meticulous ethnography, a Georgian-Armenian’s quasi-documentary exploration of his heritage and his parents’ country, but it’s also the wildly creative Armenian ancestor of Terence Davies’ and Peter Greenaway’s best work. It’s a headache, it’s hard work, it’s somehow both impenetrably profound and dazzlingly superficial. Thanks to Second Sight, it’s also a hell of an education packed inside a limited-edition box. I just don’t want to be responsible for anyone feeling buyer’s remorse because they spent their blu-ray cash on school fees— caveat emptor.