Though unanimously hailed by international critics as one of the most significant forces in 20th century Eastern European cinema, Georgian filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov paradoxically completed only a scant few motion pictures during his lifetime. Paradjanov lived until his 66th year, but lengthy periods of incarceration kept the director out of commission (thanks to his dissident political attitudes) and made it impossible for him to complete a sizeable body of work.
Born March 18, 1924, in Tiflis (then the capital city of Georgia), to Armenian parents, Paradjanov originally intended to become a vocalist, and his education (at the Tiflis Conservatoire between 1942-1945) pointed him in this direction. Yet in 1945, he shifted course and enrolled in VGIK, Moscow's State Institute of Cinematography, where he became a protégé of the legendary Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko. That giant pointed Paradjanov to Ukraine's Kiev Studios after Paradjanov graduated, where the new director helmed at least five Ukrainian language features between 1954-1964: Andriesh (1954), Dumka (aka The Ballad, 1957), Pervyy Paren (aka The First Lad, 1959), Ukrainskaya Rapsodiya (aka Ukrainian Rhapsody, 1961), and Tsvetok na Kamme (aka Flower on the Stone, 1962).
1964 marked a watershed period for Paradjanov, however. That year, he consciously broke free from his need to emulate the social realists, and forked off in the direction of cinematic folklore with Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (aka Teni Zabytykh Predkov). Freely adapted from a short story by the revered Ukrainian author Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, and set in a mid-19th century rural village in the Carpathian Mountains, amid the Hutzul people, this Capulet and Montague-like fable tells of the forbidden love affair between a young man, Ivan (Ivan Mikolaichuk), and a young woman, Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), whose families are at complete odds. When Marichka dies in a tragic accident, Ivan marries an affluent landowner (Tatyana Bestaeva), but cannot forget his first love; he ultimately concludes that the only satisfaction for his soul lies in unity with his paramour through death. His wish is finally granted when his wife and the local sorcerer plot to have him executed. Paradjanov shot the film in color and drenched it not only with Felliniesque, carnival-like images, but with Hutzul costumes, folk songs, and traditions. Although the Russian public responded coolly to the work (with occasional derision), it encountered benevolent critical reviews in the U.S.S.R. and towering enthusiasm around the world. American journalists and filmgoers hailed it as a triumph, and the work netted 16 international awards including the Grand Prix at Mar del Plata.
When turbulence jostled the Russian sociopolitical landscape from 1965-1968, Nikita Khrushchev lost his post, as did one of Paradjanov's key political allies, the Communist Pyotr Shelest. Though not Ukrainian himself, Paradjanov felt strong ties to the Ukrainian culture, and began to stage a series of highly visible pro-Ukrainian protests, which included issuing very public complaints about the incarceration of members of the Ukrainian literati and refusing to provide testimony against the "politically subversive" Soviet author Valentin Moroz. These decisions promptly led to Paradjanov's arraignment (for "Ukrainian nationalism"), but the government released him a short time later. He was then shuttled to the Amo Bek-Nazarov movie studios in Soviet Armenia, but the studio rejected every script he authored (largely on political grounds) until 1969, when Amo Bek green-lit what became Paradjanov's best-known and most-revered effort: Tsvet Granata (aka The Color of Pomegranates). This film interpreted, cinematically, the legendary (and almost mythical) tale of Aruthin Sayadin, an 18th century Armenian troubadour who served in the Georgian palace. After his own banishment to a monastery, he gradually ascended up through the clerical ranks to become the octogenarian archbishop of Tblisi, then died a martyr's death when the invading Persians executed him. An aesthetic and visually opulent work if ever there were one, The Color of Pomegranates essentially operates independently of narrative, recounting events chronologically from Sayadin's life without an obvious running thread. Paradjanov crafted it in the mold of Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, by filling the frame with an almost psychedelic onslaught of color; archaic, wall-to-wall symbolism; local Armenian customs and traditions; and centuries-old Armenian music. Critics around the globe hailed it as an instant masterpiece, although, oddly, Paradjanov did not enter it in the Cannes festival. Naturally, the Soviet authorities banned this picture on charges of Armenian nationalism and extreme "formalism," as well as sympathy to organized religion. The government issued it in a cut severely truncated and censored by Sergei Yutkevich.
Between 1969 and 1971, Paradjanov fervently authored scripts and submitted them to as many Soviet studios as possible, but the establishments invariably rejected the scenarios, most likely because of outside political pressure -- leading one to conclude that Paradjanov may have been officially blackballed. This temporarily ended in 1971, when the government granted Paradjanov permission to film the frescos at Kiev, but this seemingly harmless and benign subject became incendiary in the hands of Paradjanov, who turned it into an anti-NKVD tract. Consequently, the government clamped down on production of the film prior to Paradjanov's completion of it.
Three years later, Paradjanov sealed his fate for the remainder of the 1970s by issuing an angry document to the government of the U.S.S.R. that lamented the difficult conditions of Soviet filmmaking and his own inability to find work. Sensing fervent opposition and pressure, the authorities promptly shuttled officers to Paradjanov's home to arrest him in January 1974, on (possibly trumped-up) charges of homosexual behavior, amassing fiscally valuable paintings and sculptures, and "incitement to suicide." Though the second and third charges were dismissed, Paradjanov received five years of hard labor for the alleged gay behavior. Whisked from one work camp to another, Paradjanov refused to be daunted as a creative force, and reportedly painted 800 coal paintings, authored six film scripts, and penned at least 100 short stories -- all during his incarceration.
Meanwhile, Paradjanov's brave colleagues, including Herbert Marshall and Lily Brik, protested the artist's internment transnationally, with signed petitions, and managed to knock one year off of Paradjanov's five-year sentence. He was released in 1979, only to encounter dire impoverishment and yet another arrest for comments made to foreign journalists, circa February 1982. An acquittal followed, and the Gorbachev administration permitted Paradjanov to make another feature.This film, 1985's Legenda Suramskoi Kreposti (aka The Legend of Suram Fortress), revisited the themes of Pomegranates by resurrecting and mounting cinematographically yet another centuries-old Georgian legend; it also coupled this with the fable-like quality of Shadows. The work spins the tale of the titular palace, constructed as a defensive maneuver against encroaching Islam, but one that crumbles whenever its builders reach a set height -- that is, until a human sacrifice solves the problem. This film unsurprisingly opened to rave reviews around the world when it premiered. The American critics were particularly rapturous in their praise when Fortress took its stateside bow in February 1987.
After three years of inactivity, Paradjanov produced another feature, Ashik Kerib (1988). This seriocomic tale of a wandering minstrel was done in the frieze-like visual style of Paradjanov's previous works, and placed a slightly heavier emphasis on narrative than Fortress or Pomegranates, earning favorable reviews. Unfortunately, Ashik marked the last film that Paradjanov completed. He was hard at work on another feature-length effort, The Confession, just prior to his death from cancer in July 1990. Unfinished segments of that film appear in one of two masterful documentaries about the director's life and art, Parajanov: The Last Spring, directed by Mikhail Vartanov in 1992. The second, Ron Holloway's wondrous Parajanov, was released in 1995.