Legend of Suram Fortress, The (1985)

Review #1,575

Director:  Sergei Parajanov
Cast:  Veriko Anjaparidze, Dodo Abashidze, Dudukhana Tserodze
Plot:  A film version of a well-known Georgian folk-tale - a young boy has to be immured into the walls of a fortress in order to stop it from crumbling to pieces.

Genre:  Drama / Experimental
Awards:  Won Best Innovative Film (Rotterdam)
Runtime:  88 mins
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13)
Source:  Georgian National Film Center

A 16-year gap divides Sergei Parajanov's most well-known work, The Colour of Pomegranates (1969) and his follow-up, The Legend of Suram Fortress, the latter of which sees the persecuted Soviet filmmaker channelling some of the avant-garde experimentation of the earlier film, and some semblance of narrative storytelling that characterised an even earlier work, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964).  Perhaps one could best see Suram Fortress as the B-side to the more substantial 1964 film.  

Co-directed by Dodo Abashidze, who also stars, Suram Fortress is certainly not for everyone—in fact, even hard-core Parajanov fans might be suitably challenged when they encounter the narratively-abstruse work for the first time.  It is a simple tale: Set in the medieval period, the walls of a fortress keep collapsing, befuddling all who try to (re)build it.  They seek help from a fortune teller, who surmises that a blonde, blue-eyed young man must be buried alive within the walls to ensure it does not crumble.  

Based on the novella by Daniel Chonkadze, whose first and last work “Suramis tsikhe” (written more than 150 years ago) gives the film its literary roots, Suram Fortress is highly allegorical and political, insofar as it hides its politics through experimentation and technique.  Diegetic and non-diegetic music are fascinatingly employed, while landscape shots and unique visual compositions (the filmmakers really play with foreground and background) create striking scenes that retain the exotic, cultural elements that define Parajanov’s singular style, including his fondness for using fruits and animals in his films.  

The elemental spontaneity and the artifice of staged proceedings combine to give an otherworldly effect, as if it is exalting the artist.  But Parajanov struggles to find a balance between experimentation and storytelling (not that it is of primary concern to him as an artist).  Broken up into numerous short vignettes, any narrative momentum is halted dead in its tracks by its ‘glass shards’ structure, where the many pieces do not necessarily constitute a whole, not to mention we must create some missing shards on our own.  

Suram Fortress is sometimes frustrating to watch, though one cannot deny that it is a very beautiful film.  Like his earlier works, it seems to have come from a far ancient time—which is probably the greatest compliment anyone can give to a filmmaker making a period film.  

Verdict:  Told in numerous short vignettes, Parajanov’s late Georgian film retains the exotic, cultural elements that define his work, but occasionally struggles to find a balance between experimentation and storytelling.




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