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  • Writer's pictureJulia Sumzina

From the abstractionism in poetic genre to the political surrealism in the Soviet National Cinema

In the second article of my series I'd like to look at two films of Soviet National Cinema: The Color of Pomegranates (1969) by Sergei Parajanov and Repentance (1984) by Tengiz Abuladze.

The Soviet cinema in general used to be full of political propaganda. However, it wasn’t unidirectional: some films had a clear ideological plot, others had few levels and could contain pro-soviet traits as well as anti-soviet ones at the same time, and some of the films had no official propaganda at all. The National cinema (Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh etc.) in the USSR can be highlighted as a specific direction. In this essay I’d like to talk a little about the way from poetic abstract genre in Sergei Parajanov’s vision in the Thaw times to the political surrealism in the anti-dictatorship work the Repentance by Tengiz Abuladze created at the dawn of perestroika.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969) by Sergei Parajanov is an aesthetic biography of the Armenian ashug (poet) of XVIII century Sayat-Nova (King of Song) that describes his life visually and poetically rather than literally, with the help of music and visual objects.

The Soviet New Wave is also called “poetic cinema.” The Color of Pomegranates is an abstract work of the poetic genre. This film has a number of specific features, such as ethnography, mysticism, visual expressiveness, picturesqueness, plasticity, imagery, psychologism, and moreover, it was created as a cinematic collage. This tendency was also popular in the European cinema of the same period, there are some similar traits in The Milky Way (1969) by Luis Buñuel, The Virgin’s Bed (1969) and The Inner Scar (1972) by Philippe Garrel and other works of “cinéma d'auteur”.

The Parajanov’s film is based on the poems by Sayat-Nova and inspired by Persian miniatures, in its surrealistic image it contains a lot from Armenian traditional aesthetics. The central figure of a Poet appears as a symbol of the loneliness and the inspiration of the artist, Parajanov depicts the inner world of a creative person and the picturesqueness of his vision of the world. It is very interesting to see the Poet played by both men and a woman: the boy at the beginning, then the actress (Sofiko Chiaureli) as a young Poet and two male actors for the Poet in the cloister and the Poet as an old man. It can be paralleled with Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf where the English literature has all its adventures as a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history. It also can point the idea about the duality of gender traits in each person.

The image of a monumental Armenian church cupola is also very curious: it can be seen both as a designation of power and great culture as well as a symbol of loneliness of a human.

The Georgian church cupola the audience can see in the Repentance (1984) by Tengiz Abuladze, when in the beginning of the film Ketevan Barateli makes a cake with a сhurch figurine made of cream.

The film created at the beginning of perestroika has many traits of Parajanov’s style poetic cinema: the compilation of the timelines, a combination of reality and fiction, sense and absurdity, a collage style, the importance of objects and symbols. The action takes place nowhere, the place is not indicated anywhere, and the viewer can only recognize the periods: the 1930s and 1980s.

One of the main symbols is the cross from Barateli house, and this cross is not only about religion but about a kind of believing in miracle, which leaves Barateli family after Sandro Barateli was taken by the “police”. The policemen in armor on the horses remind the image of a knight in The Color of Pomegranates, they look surrealistically “medieval”.

Music has an important place in Abuladze’s film: the epic work by Khachaturian at the beginning, by Beethoven and also his famous Moonlight Sonata, an excerpt from Verdi’s opera, so reminiscent of Italy in the era of Musolini. And Arvo Pärt's music in the scene with the logs creates a heavy atmosphere of fear and hopelessness, and Boney M's song contrasts with the tragic scene at the end of the film.

The image of Varlam includes the traits of several historical figures including Stalin, Beria, Hitler, Musolini and Franco and presents the image of a dictator in each country the audience can imagine while watching the film.

In this story Sandro Barateli is opposite to Varlam. From time to time he reminds Sayat-Nova in the monastery from The Color of Pomegranates or Jesus Christ, he also can be associated with Master from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Sandro is an educated and creative person, an artist with that special vision of the world and yearning for freedom which is contrasted with uneducated and ignorant agreement with repression. Then Ketevan, his daughter, also contrasts with others in the court, her noble appearance is opposed to the bandit looks of Varlam’s descendants.

The main political idea of the film is clear, it is not only about anti-stalinism, but this film speaks out against dictatorship and repression in general and its creators cannot accept the fact that people who committed atrocities have been forgiven, and their crimes are forgotten or are being erased from people’s memory.

The development of the national cinema in the USSR was uneven, but there is a fact that especially Ukrainian and Caucasian (Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani) productions gave to the history of Soviet cinema examples of auteur films unusual for mass audiences. Here I have chosen two Caucasian films quite connected with each other with some common traits. Both of them tell about a personality and the inner world of a creative person. Parajanov dives into this inner world and shows it from inside, connected with the world around but not concentrated on it. Abuladze gives the audience the contrast between the inner world and freedom of a creative and inspired person and a hell inside Abel, the son of the dictator, whose empty life leads him and his family to a tragedy. Both films are not “typical” Soviet ones, both of them are controversial and provoked dissatisfaction with censorship and both of them are still very interesting to watch and analyse.

Text: Julia Sumzina

Photo & video: The Criterion Collection, Festival de Cannes © Nana Janelidze, NY Times, Video Detective

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