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The Legend Of Suram Fortress / Ashik Kerib (DVD)

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Sergei Paradjanov's career was more closely related to the time and place in which he lived than that of most directors. So why do his films seem to come from another century, if not another world? In 1968, the Armenian director shot The Color Of Pomegranates. Ostensibly a biopic of 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, it takes the form of an experimental fantasia on the theme of Nova's life. Paradjanov scares up one startling sequence after another, crafting a bizarre mosaic of Nova's world while limiting himself to the materials of the poet's time, not excluding livestock. Domesticated animals find their way into virtually every frame, including an extraordinary moment in which the protagonist finds himself in a church filled to the corners with sheep. Attempting to make literal sense of the film would probably prove daunting even to scholars of 18th-century Armenian poetry; like a dream, it's destroyed by too much scrutiny. As an immersive cinematic experience, however, few films match it, though Soviet officials thought otherwise. Charging that Pomegranates violated the dictates of Socialist Realism, the authorities suppressed the film, which remained largely unseen until bootlegs resurfaced on the festival circuit nearly a decade later. By this point, Paradjanov, who was gay and involved in various human-rights movements, had been jailed on trumped-up charges of black marketeering and "deviant" leanings. In Ron Holloway's reverent documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem, included on the new DVD version of Pomegranates, an unbowed Paradjanov speaks nonchalantly of being accused of "surrealism," never pointing out the surreality of a government that views surrealism as a crime. Otherwise, he wears the accusation well, using the fabric of the everyday to upset notions of reality and normality while incorporating the lessons of Soviet forebears such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. "You torment people with your artistic delight, scaring mother and grandmother in the middle of the night," Paradjanov says in Requiem; such an attempt to define the role of the artist suggests that he might have needed to play the part of the provocateur even if he never expected such extreme punishment for his vision. International protests won his freedom and allowed him to resume his filmmaking career in the '80s with The Legend Of Suram Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988), now both collected on a single DVD. The films are superficially more narrative-oriented, but Paradjanov generally uses the narratives as jumping-off points for visual flights of fancy, which get at the stories' themes better than a straightforward telling could. A 19th-century novel and a nationalist Georgian folk song inspired The Legend Of Suram Fortress; Ashik is based on the tale of a traveling minstrel. Both are layered in exotica to the point of otherworldliness, which seems integral to Paradjanov's work; he recreates the past with an exaggerated sense of myth and magic. Maybe that's what the authorities feared most: the prospect that audiences could view the past and past ways of thinking with anything but horror. Though unique, Paradjanov's work might not have had the same relevance outside of the oppressive system that spawned it. His death in 1990 never allowed him to find out.