The young son of a serf, long granted freedom by his master, sacrifices his life by letting himself be entombed alive within the brick walls of the Suram Fortress to keep it from crumbling. Or so the ancient Georgian legend goes. Daniel Chonqadze first adopted this folk tale into his book. Sergei Parajanov, one of the most unique and controversial voices in the Soviet Union, made a film out of this folklore in his own cinematic language and the results were.....beyond extraordinary!
This is Parajanov's first film after a ban of nearly 15 years which included a couple of periods of imprisonment. Parajanov was always in the bad books of the Soviet authorities, thanks to his artistically rebellious ways that defied convention, especially the socialist realist style, which was the only authorized art form at the time. The political environment began to cool down by the mid 80s and that is when Parajanov was finally able to deliver an unrestrained product, true to the style he embraced in his first two acclaimed works that led to all the turmoil (not considering anything that came before 1964's "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" that he publicly disowned).
With a little help from influential actor/director Dodo Abashidze, a recharged Parajanov bounced back in 1984 with "The Legend of Suram Fortress". How ironic though that the filmmaker marked his return with a film about the son of a slave, a man in bondage. Despite attaining freedom, his son ultimately ends up being immured alive within the brick walls of a fortress, in order to strengthen it. Once a slave, forever a slave; ultimately his doomed destiny leads him to be shackled in death! It eerily mirrors Parajanov's own life as a slave to the system who was sacrificed by being restrained by the powers that be in order to strengthen their positions and safeguard the interests of their nation!
Parajanov is in top form here, despite the hiatus, and adds his own signature flavour to a seemingly simple tale infused with its fantastical elements and magical realism. This is a story rife with its princes, warriors, fortune-tellers, unfulfilled love, valour, revenge and sacrifice, a tale the likes of which you may have heard orally from your grandmothers as children and passed on through generations.
The director presents to the audience, his astounding vision of the said lore, and paints a living, breathing canvas, brimming with bedazzling colours, breathtaking imagery and rich symbolism that is out of this world. The plot moves, but not in the manner you would expect it to. The narrative is rather fragmented, sometimes disjoint and disorienting, in the form of a series of vignettes or tableaux. Each of these vignettes is quite poetic in its approach, with some stylized, off-kilter dialog that allows us to make some sense of the story and its proceedings. There are visible jump cuts, a pace that is uneven, sudden, hurried shifts and time leaps that may mystify and not be very easy to follow but a couple of viewings are enough to sufficiently comprehend it all.
The episodic, fractured nature of the screenplay could be likened to an interrupted, partially broken dream stemming from a distorted, fading memory of age-old fables, that lose some of their threads, as certain bits and pages get lost in transition across generations. A generous dose of bizarre, surreal visuals add to its oneiric qualities and so does the unsettling, eerie musical score and sound design. It is interesting how the sound quality of some of the spoken words is modulated in certain scenes producing an echo or distant effect. Accentuating the phantasmagorical and even theatrical nature of the screenplay is the choice of filming locations. It is notable that most of the scenes are filmed outdoors, barring a few that are shot indoors.
Many of these outdoor sequences appear to take place at a common location, with the backdrop of two statues. This location is what appears to be the ruins of the Suram fortress. However, the same backdrop is used even in sequences that take place across different timelines. It almost acts like a common stage for the actors in the film. There's an anachronistic blink and miss moment, difficult to spot if one is not paying careful attention but its a mystery as to why the filmmaker makes such a choice. Perhaps it is there for no real reason and is just another addition to some of the randomness strewn about. Or perhaps it's a subtle joke about how all time was one; and even the situation in modern day USSR was just as archaic!
The camera technique and choices of filming itself is a display of eccentricity, and in a good way, of course. Most scenes begin with closeup static shots of certain artifacts, animals or birds. Then in others, the camera moves back to such a distance that it is impossible to spot the tiny characters in a frame! All that is visible are the picturesque, vast open landscapes. As is the case with most Parajanov films, there is a great emphasis on culture, in this case, the Georgian culture. The lavish costumes, masks, makeup, the music and dance, and even acrobatics such as tight-rope walking and other stunts are in abundance.
Films like "The Legend of Suram Fortress" don't get made often. Filmmakers like Sergei Parajanov who dare to speak a radical language, don't come by often either. This film is Parajanov's unsung masterpiece that deserves to be recognized among his greatest achievements. It is likely that it may frustrate some viewers with its peculiar storytelling approach, but others who connect with it would revel in its enchanting, mystical grandeur.