KinoKultura: Issue 70 (2020)

Philosophically Paradjanov

By Krikor Beledian, translated by Laure Astourian

This essay was originally published in La Part de l'Œil. Revue de pensée des arts plastiques (n. 30, 2016-2017). This translation is published with the permission and consultation of the author.

Krikor Beledian (b. 1945) is a prolific novelist, essayist, poet, philosopher, and literary critic. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, he has lived and worked in Paris since 1967. He holds PhDs in Philosophy and Comparative Literature from the University Paris 5. Beledian taught for many years at the INALCO (Institut national de langues et civilisations orientales) and at the Catholic University of Lyon. English translations of his work include Antipoem (translated from the Western Armenian by Ralph Setian, 1978), Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France (translated from the French by Christopher Atamian, 2016), “The Name under My Tongue” (in Best European Fiction, translated from the Western Armenian by Shushan Avagyan, 2013) and the 13-part poetry collection Unpeopled Language, which is being translated from the Western Armenian by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis.

Beledian’s essay on Paradjanov is one of the most brilliant and rich texts written about the filmmaker, and specifically about The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova, 1968). His essay mirrors the film at the same time that it examines it: like Paradjanov, Beledian demands that readers relinquish control and enter his piece with openness. He leads readers into an obscure and esoteric world, ultimately rewarding them for taking his circuitous path. The reader thus follows the path trodden by Sayat Nova, Paradjanov, and Beledian himself, venturing on a mystical, cryptic, and ultimately enlightening and satisfying journey.
(Laure Astourian)


parajanovThere is a turning point in Paradjanov’s oeuvre which immediately takes the form of a return. After a twenty-year absence, in 1966 Paradjanov returned to Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was born. He had made a few films, notably Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Chariots of Fire), which revealed the great filmmaker gestating in him. He had written the screenplay for Confession, of which he would only be able to shoot a few scenes towards the end of his life (Paradjanov, 1992). The autobiographical inspiration of that unfinished work is certain. But it is not that work that comes to mind as I skim the screenplay written like a fully realized literary text in which the filmic image has been substituted by the mental image of words. I come across this remarkable sentence: “It is necessary to establish the source of light.” Perhaps there is no light at the source. Perhaps memory has not retained any of it. But it is necessary to establish its source. This does not ring so much like the remark an art historian in front of a painting with enigmatic lighting, but rather like a summoning, a duty to which the artist must give way if he wants to reach the end of the work he has tasked himself with completing.

The Source, the Truth
The passion for the work-to-be-completed is what leads Paradjanov, descending the steps of the plane, like Ulysses facing the gates of hell, towards the closed doors of the cemetery where his relatives are buried. The passion takes the circular form of a “movement towards the ancestors.” Along the way the revenant passes by “phantom-like youth in black sweaters who hold in their hands spirit levels and theodolites,” that is to say destroyers of memory. He discovers that the cemetery itself will disappear and that he himself is just an exiled being from his childhood. Everything is tied to this moment when all that remains from the past are vestiges destined to be erased. Confronted by the imminence of the catastrophe, and in the crude light of self-exile, an urgency comes to light. The work-to-be-completed becomes a free necessity: it is necessary to save the ancestors, keep their memory alive (it is all they ask for), erect a cenotaph for them. Poets do not always establish what remains (Hölderlin) but they serve as witnesses of what is no longer, without that witnessing taking the form of reminiscence or the elegiac color of nostalgia.

I am describing here an event, a driving “principle,” I am establishing a sort of rupture in oneself that has perhaps always existed, since the moment the revenant left the premises. The return signals a mourning while aiming to find the child, to free it, and to liberate the language and the world of the ancestors from the forgetting that obliterates them. Forgetting and exile must be marked and open onto the new horizons they summon. Returning is neither repairing the damage, nor restoring a purity that has been corrupted. Returning is not re-appropriating for oneself a problematic identity, the loss of which one can only observe. Returning is “searching for the truth” (“I, who search for the truth,” says the revenant), “the truth as I perceive it,” as it appears to the gaze, returning means lifting the forgetting, conferring to memory the power of a shackled imagination hindered by evil spells or seductions of power. Is this not an authentic anamnesis? Which is not to say that the exiled, upon entering the circle of the familiar, will stop perceiving himself (and being perceived) as a foreigner.[1]

I am inclined to see in this “originary” exile the source of light that projects, on the screen of movie theatres and of our mind, the images that Paradjanov captures, forges, and invents. It constitutes the background of the three films I will refer to here as the “Caucasian trilogy,” which are stylistically and thematically very close: Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates, 1969), The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985), and Ashik Kerib (1988).

As the founding issue, this path, this return towards the shadow of ancestors in search of light was already taking shape in Chariots of Fire. In the trilogy, the path looks like a descent towards the “archaic,” towards primordial times, towards that which is in charge of the walk (archeos is the archer), towards all that precedes power and the established political space. The filmmaker’s comments on The Legend of Suram Fortress can be applied to his entire aesthetic enterprise: “The era, decor, and costumes that were created in relation to historical frescoes, the visual dimension of the film, the landscapes, all of this leads towards archaic times.” The work is organized aesthetically around this “ancestral ark” that it seeks to represent neither as a defined historical period, nor to show as a mythical place that has been lost (for all exiled people, the country is paradise), but to reveal as a truth searched for, and to establish it in the pure space of visibility. Everything seems to suggest that this truth, this “archaic” source could be considered the inherent sacredness of things, forms, rites, a sacredness that appears throughout Paradjanov’s cinematographic oeuvre starting with Chariots of Fire. This might summarize the “spiritual” dimension of the work, its restrained emotional charge, its ecstatic visions, its dazzling images resembling apparitions.

The Plasticity of the System
The trilogy invites commentary and resists it, just as the ever-silent image refers to language, which it denies or welcomes. For someone thinking the image, it is quite tempting to consider it the perceptible translation of an idea, the illustration of an underlying discourse in a symbolic universe that preexisted it. There would be a latent meaning in the appearance of the icon, as there is in dreams, in the psychoanalytical approach. Such a traditional conception of the image deprives the perceptible of its density and cancels the fact that meaning, in the image, is a process that makes the image. That which is shown in Paradjanov’s work manifests the fulfillment of its revelation. The image is a sensual, carnal, erotic making, if one sees in the erotic an ecstatic tension towards an elsewhere that exceeds and justifies the perceptible. The fish that wriggles on the bread, the foot that smashes a bunch of grapes, the pomegranates that lose their blood, the wind that shakes the petals of a rose, the movement of a herd of sheep, the infinite water falling into a vase, all of this constitutes a series that an analogic operation will unfold and which provokes in the spectator a mental process of associations without them being able to identify a defined and stable meaning, as with the meaning of a word in a dictionary. This elsewhere towards which the image transports us (its metaphorical function) involves another way of speaking and takes the way of the “allegory.” This is not to say that Paradjanov’s films are allegorical in the common sense of the term, but rather in the “parabolic” sense: putting something next to another thing, without the two falling within the same category. What is unique to the work of meaning is its endless play with these two levels. The “allegorical” image transforms the thing it presents by transposing it and adorning it with a light coming from elsewhere.

Paradjanov conceives the work as “a system of emotions and colors, a visual and rhythmic system.” The word “system” must be understood as the whole that holds itself together plastically through its own force. The plasticity refers to the invention of forms that contain their raison d’être within themselves. It is to the film what poetry is to literature. It is another name for art, even for artifice, artifact. Plasticity imposes an order of composition, a structure on the elements, sounds, bodies, figures, and landscapes, by putting them in a supple and complex network of relations, connections, configurations. It is the logic of the work (logos is what assembles the dissimilar). Like the words of a language, the landscapes and iconic elements—forms, colors, gestures, movements—are structured, they obey a syntax. The gaze stares at the objects, it even seems to immobilize them, as if to define or highlight them. We see this at work constantly in both Sayat Nova and Ashik Kerib. Objects which at first glance seem to constitute a “decor”[2] gradually evolve into metaphors. Repeated, shifted, reintroduced in another sequence, in another “scene,” they rise to the rank of signs, they are arrows turned towards possible words, towards the memory or the imagination of the viewer, the reader. It is a genuine iconic vocabulary that the filmmaker delivers and subsequently begins arranging into a plastically coherent language. Costumes, rugs, interiors, architectural spaces, animals, men are connected not only in the temporal order of succession but also in the hierarchical order of space (hiero refers once again to the sacred). All that enters into the visual field obeys a necessity inherent to the work rather than to any realist aim. The recurring return of the same images confers to what they manifest the status of a powerful icon, bestowed with a significant energy. In The Legend of Suram Fortress, at their first appearance the horses are beasts of burden, a means of transportation. At the end of the film they become witnesses to the sacrificial mystery. “For me, they are relics of a sacrificial altar.”

For Paradjanov, a “scene” is a carefully thought mental space. It structures the story like narration in a literary text. One need only read the screenplay of Sayat Nova[3] to understand how the improvised details integrate the discourse. Moreover, what one refers to as improvisation functions only when there is an open system and a thought at work. Lines, volumes, colors, forms, rhythms, movements, depth of field, point of view, sounds and words compose an imaginary flow. One certainly sees here an effort not to channel the sumptuous abundance of images, but to dominate the components of the image. In the case of the landscapes this effort is extreme, that is to say stunning. Paradjanov notes that it is not about a “concrete landscape in the sense of trackable in time and space, but of a philosophically rendered landscape.” “Philosophically” means “transformed in light of truth.” In other words, in the work of filmic art, as in any form of art, the landscape is subject to the task of composition, thought, and presentation, rather than “representation.” Like any visual element, it is a sign, rich in meanings, that the spectator must decipher.

An Art Beyond Speech
Paradjanov’s cinematographic enterprise is characterized by his renouncement of speech. One should not, however, see in this renouncement a definitive abandonment of articulated language or a commitment to aphonia. The case of Sayat Nova is emblematic. It is at the heart of poetic language that the exercise of silence occurs. Sayat Nova is a near-silent film on “the life” of a poet, the loquacious being par excellence. Sayat Nova (1722-1795), the pseudonym of Aroutine, is the author of poems—written in Armenian, Georgian, and Azeri Turkish—to which we have access thanks to his signed manuscript conserved at the Museum of Art and Literature of Yerevan. We see this manuscript displayed at the beginning of the film, without the voice-over reading excerpts from it. Language certainly exists but written as a text, a lapidary inscription, a small cosmological speech narrating the creation of man in the image of God. This achugh (troubadour), tied as a serf to the court of Georgia for around twenty years, is a poet perfectly conscious of his singularity and genius. Does he not rival the most famous of his contemporaries? The one who juggles with the most elaborate forms of poetry of his period? The master who knows the mysteries, effects, magic and evil spells of the hymn? Is it not he who writes, in a poem to Heraclius II of Georgia, his protector: “Not everyone can drink my water, it is from another source. Not everyone can read me, my writing is another writing.” Whether arrogance or pride, this self-awareness is that of an artist grappling with a despotic power that ends up exiling him. Sayat Nova, a creator in a time of distress and persecution! His violent death—as a martyr in the church—, far from being the end of a tragedy, has something provocative and fascinating about it. It is disturbing. Thus, this figure elevated to the limits of myth could only provoke empathy in the filmmaker who knew his Sayat Nova inside out. This was certainly the case for the two other parts of the trilogy: legends read to all children.

Yet Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova who moves in three languages is a being of silence. As a child, keeps silent, he skims through the pages of old books on the roof of Sanahin [monastery founded in 10th century in the Lori province of Armenia; L.A.], in whose shadow he was born (around 1722). As a bard, he sings verses, he continues to remain silent. He is in the language, but loves only music. Neither continuous inner monologue nor beginning of dialogue. Bits of sentences, some truncated or modified verses (“you are fire, dressed in fire” becomes “you are fire…dressed in black”: there is no gender in Armenian, my translation situates the sentence in the scene, but one could interpret this sentence as an inner monologue), sounds, noises (the admirable music of Tigran Mansourian), gestures, colors, forms, an entire grammar of signs that call upon the viewer constrained to searching for stylistic devices (it is necessary to “attach” oneself to something after all). Let’s add to this a clear taste for ritual and folklore (a complicit, amused, mischievous wink to ethnologists and specialists of the archaic). And yet the film is not literary at all! In fact, that was the criticism made of it upon its release. From the poet’s biography there remain only a few significant moments one can find in virtually any biography of a writer or artist: childhood, loves, jobs, exile, disappointment. Paradjanov immediately dismisses the possibility of using poetry as documentary material. A few verses and musical notes are enough to convey the singularity of the figure of a poet, constantly exiled from his childhood throughout his many metamorphoses.

Another surprise awaits he who prides himself of his knowledge on the History of the region and rather meager facts of literary history. There are no historical reenactments like those to which Hollywood and Cinecittà peplums have accustomed us. Nothing realistic, no psychology, no ideology, no nationalist pathos: Sayat Nova is a trilingual poet who affirms his “Armenianness” all while considering himself a being of frontiers. To be sure, there is ethnographic research, an attempt to create the character of a milieu, I would say the atmosphere of an era: after all, cinema is the fruit of a technique for which this elsewhere of ancestors is largely outdated. It is this technical gaze that is reversed, stripped of its universalist and omniscient claims.

And yet, from the poetry of Sayat Nova we find by analogy themes, motifs, dynamic structures, interior space: windows, casements, arcatures, tympanums, doors, frames, sources of boredom and weariness, sensations, out of focus and ambiguous figures, feminine/masculine, loved one/lover, as in Sufi thought. What about the use of colors, the true analogon of the poetic descriptions of the loved one’s beauty! But all of this is reinterpreted, transposed, objectified. I would refrain from making of Sayat Nova a modern illustration of the poetry of a poet. The film maintains ambivalent relations with this “reality” to which it clings or which it imitates so as to better appropriate it. To see, for Paradjanov, is to think by analogy.

Paradjanov invents a malleable language for a poetic subject, where the linguistic elements are integrated with other modes of expression. Some pantomime, some gestures, the simplest of narratives comparable to a children’s “tale,” as would the two other parts of the trilogy (besides, Ashik Kerib bears the subtitle of“oriental tale,” a story widely recognized in popular traditions in the Caucasus). The peripetia constitute transitional phases or initiatory moments: the hunting scene in Sayat Nova and that of the river crossing in Ashik Kerib punctuate the narrative and restart it. Like the credits of old silent films, the title cards announce sequences and roll out successive images. In the original version of Sayat Nova, the title cards written in Armenian and presented like “miniatures” do not anticipate the “content” of sequences: they bring some text into the image, without clarifying it, a bit like the voice-over or the voice lent to a figure. Besides, it is rare that a word emerges from the mouth of a “character.” The major exception is the recitation of the verse “the world is a window—I have had enough of arcatures” by the crying women dressed in red and black. The filmmaker took only one theme from this poem of boredom and fatigue (bezaril) dated April 1759, simply alluding to the city. This precise and subtly defined use of articulated language and poetry does not prevent us from thinking that we find ourselves in an art without speech, a silent film on poetry, as if the silence of the images were the best gift we could give to the poem.

There is an organizing scheme of an iconic “discourse” that does not pertain to the story being told, nor to a representation of actual states. This principle is clearly expressed in the screenplay of Sayat Nova, it is the illuminated miniature where text and image coexist and mutually dialogue. The very beautiful scene of the child with books on the roof of the Sanahin monastery is a perfectly perceptible mise-en-abyme of the “film as illumination” and announces the motif of the window (dazzled vision and lassitude, tight frame and death). In The Legend of Suram Fortress it is the bas-reliefs and frescoes that constitute the plastic reference, while in Ashik Kerib Persian painting is at once the scheme by which the scene is “thought” and the analogon drawn by the moving figures. These explicit references to the art of illumination and to the church icon, and even to the weaving of rugs (in Armenian the poet identifies himself as a “weaver of words,” panahus), enable us to perceive what is actually at play: all of these concern the thinking of the filmic image itself, in search of its own source of light, that is to say of its own theoretical foundations. The filmmaker-philosopher looks for an “archaic,” even “ancestral” image, anterior in a way to the mathesis, to calculation, to geometric perspective, that he contests, and closer to “simple” forms, “naive” to representation, aiming more and more at a frontal presentation of figures and things, only at the surface, in a space without objective depth.

I cannot dwell here on the formal work undertaken by Paradjanov in the short film devoted to the famous representative of the dynasty of painters and poets, Hakob Hovnatanian (1965), which narrowly precedes the conception and making of Sayat Nova. I simply note that the Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme, on another painter, was made between The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib. More than a simple pictorial obsession, it is about an effort to recapture the pictorial work in order to make of it a test on the level of the image in movement. Yet each time it imposes itself as a painting, as a work of art, as plasticity of visual forms, the articulated language disappears. Usually in cinema, since the invention of sound, actors speak; it is up to the viewers to be silent and listen. Here, this relationship is reversed: silence reigns on the screen. This does not mean that nothing is said. Silence is the universe of the signifier from which meaning has been removed. In silent films, silence is constrained; in Paradjanov’s films it is chosen, desired, transformed into a veritable art of avoidance.

Why is it so?

A suspicion towards articulated language, towards a method of communication placed under high surveillance? In a period of persecutions, isn’t the silent world of images a refuge? Isn’t language perverted? But perversion does not explain everything, it does not explain anything. The silent film, in which we advance only through gestures and cries, the film seems to me to be the equivalent of a rediscovered childish babble. Beneath our languages transformed into conventional signs, murmurs still or runs, like a will o’the wisp, the voice of the child, preceding meaning and close to music. In this type of silent film, which repeats and seizes for itself a tradition that has become obsolete, which returns, if I may, to the childhood of the art of cinema, it is the aphonic that emerges. The exiled returns. This is what explains, without exhausting the subject, the recourse to tales, legends, epic narratives, but also to more or less reinvented rituals, to more or less “authentic” folklore, to “minor” arts like rugmaking, crafts, the miniature, supposedly naïve painting that ignores the laws of perspective (Pirosmani, Hovnatanian). The exiled comes into possession of the cemetery of ancestors whose effigies have been sold off like goods in the huge auction that was the “Revolution.” It is not so much nostalgia that colors with its sadness this “nostos” as much as the necessity of gathering that which was abandoned, trampled, dispersed or erased. Paradjanov does not restore that which has been destroyed or deteriorated, he transforms it into a triumphant image. For the last time! The return revolves into reversal.

This return also takes the form of a confrontation with power, with political space or non-space. We can never forget that the Caucasian trilogy was prepared before, during and after the years of persecutions and, beyond the obvious contestation of the aesthetic canons in force during the 1960s, it can be understood as the supreme affirmation of an art without compromise. I would like to highlight a passage of the screenplay of a film that was never made, Intermezzo: “An old, blind lyre player, sitting on the edge of a well, sang a Ukrainian chant… A young police officer on his tiptoes approached the lyre player and closed his mouth, politely… The words of the melody were disappeared. Only the lyre continued to play…” (Paradjanov, 1992, p. 75) It is easy to read between the lines the situation of the artist condemned to silence, who tries to waver, to see, think, write so as to leave his place to a lyre.

The Foreigner, the Territory
Paradjanov’s oeuvre seems to me a reflection on art and the artist in times of persecution and exile. Not only the figure of Sayat Nova but also those of Zurab in The Legend of Suram Fortress and even more in Ashik Kerib raise this question. In the last part of the trilogy, Ashik Kerib is an achugh, in the vein of Sayat Nova. A wandering poet-musician like Sufi masters and sages in search of absolute love and a divine face. A “foreigner”[4] whose life and art are made of suffering. A new Sayat Nova. The forced exile of one echoes the long journey of the other. Both are searching for an impossible or inaccessible “love object”: knowledge, mystery, hermetic truth? We are dealing with obstructed or blocked creators in search of light. Sayat Nova lays to rest his genius in a monastery, Ashik Kerib buries his instrument in the earth, just as Zurab the child buries himself alive in the fortress wall of Suram. Death closely resembles a ritual self-sacrifice of which the violence is barely concealed by the plastic beauty of the image. The work emerges against the backdrop of the disaster it mourns. All that remains is the lyre of art where all that is personal, the child, like the ancestors, is found again in order to be lost. The lyre is not in the territory, it is the territory.

The dramatic tale of Sayat Nova and Zurab, the facetious, humorous tale of Ashik Kerib are facets of the same fable. Paradjanov alternately delivers to us the tragic version and the heroic-comic version, as in carnivalesque novels. The stylistic similitude of these three films reveals the radical identity of the intention. This by turns masculine, by turns feminine, in any case ambivalent character placed at the center of the tale is a bit like the portrait of the artist as a young migrant, a traveler, a being in passage, dispossessed of his childhood, his history, his land and even himself. Thus he takes the mask of the exiled whose long journey passes through a series of initiatory stations. For such a figure, art has nothing to do with a simple, sensual reproduction, nor does it become the fruit of a simple, judiciously calculated combination of plastic forms. For the exiled, in art there is his life. In Sayat Nova, human love transforms into the discovery of a transcendence indicated by the allegorical figure of the muse. In Ashik Kerib, back in his land, the foreigner finds the immanence of flesh, of a truth personified, unless one must see the metaphor of artistic mastery or liberty attained after a major battle. Paradjanov’s ambiguous position could not be more clearly affirmed and, beyond the name of an all in all iconic filmmaker, better underlined the ambivalence of the cinematographic work which only presents us the spiritual dimension of the image so as to transform it into a simple allusion or to mock it so as to better take it away from curious eyes. The road to crucifixion and miraculous flight constitute two aspects of the same journey. Just as austerity and laughter mask the face of the artist in the traveler’s outfit.

At the end of this circular journey, the revisited ancestors are not what they were, but what they will be thanks to the adult gaze of the child, hidden behind the camera.

Translated from the French by Laure Astourian

Works Cited
Paradjanov, Sergei. 1992. Sept Visions. Translated by Galia Ackerman and Pierre Lorrain. Paris: Le Seuil.


1] Some of the difficulties faced by the filmmaker in Armenia can be explained by this paradoxical logic that makes the revenant a foreigner, not to say an intruder.

2] It goes without saying that Paradjanov’s cinematic language evolved, but starting with Sayat Nova, his search seems to have resulted in great coherence. This is why what is achieved with much effort in Sayat Nova becomes a mode of expression in Ashik Kerib.

3] This screenplay, published in the above-mentioned work, is a preparatory text for the film. The original version available today offers an excellent opportunity for comparing the completed work with its proposal. The film is infinitely richer, more suggestive, and certainly more unsettling than this screenplay intended for Armenfilm studios. The interest of the proposal lies elsewhere. It enables us to see the evolution of Paradjanov’s thought from 1966 to 1969, from the preliminary work to the making of the film. It would be an understatement to say that Paradjanov improvises. He deploys the spiritual implications of his subject in a much more radical way than suggested by the preparatory text.

4] Kerib is an alteration of the Arabic-Persian “gharib” and designates the wanderer, foreigner, other.

Image courtesy of Sergei Paradjanov Museum, Yerevan, Armenia

Krikor Beledian, transl. Laure Astourian © 2020

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Updated: 2020