A traditional Georgian folktale recounts the story of a powerful medieval overlord who sought to fortify the most vulnerable territory within his vast and far-reaching empire, the remote kingdom of Surami, through the envisioned construction of the formidable Suram Fortress. However, the completion of the ambitiously conceived, large-scale fortification project soon proves to be elusive as the construction reveals its own peculiar and insurmountable challenge (and looming prospect of futile interminability) as the newly erected walls (using a quaint mortar conconction that is binded with stones, straw, and poultry eggs) continually collapse under their own crushing weight. Within this atmosphere of uncertain and looming enemy attack, arduous (and frustrating) toil, and economic austerity, a young peasant woman named Vardo (Leila Alibegashvili) – with a particular aptitude for divining the sex of an unborn child – is summoned to the castle against the trepidation of her lover, a court emissary and troubadour named Durmishkhan (Zurab Kipshidze) who believes that, as fate had befallen other maidens who were similarly issued such an ambiguous invitation, she will be indefinitely held captive and forced to serve the whims of their feudal lord. Nevertheless, Vardo’s circumstances would seem to turn auspicious after endearing herself to the court by correctly predicting the princess’ child and heir to the throne. Released from her servant duties by a grateful court, Vardo is soon reunited wither lover, only to be separated by fate once again when Durmishkhan sets out, at the prince’s instigation, to seek his fortune. Cruelly discovering first-hand the inconstancy of the prince’s shallow allegiance, the broken Durmishkhan is taken under the protective wing of a benevolent and nomadic merchant and goods trader named Osman-Aga (Dodo Abashidze), who introduces him to a brave new world of unlimited opportunity, leading him ever further away from the crumbling, impermanent walls of the Suram Fortress and his beloved, heartbroken Vardo.
Filmed in the aftermath of 15 years of artistic censorship in the Soviet Union (and following what would prove to be the filmmaker’s final release from prison in 1983 after a protracted series of revolving door sentences on a litany of dubious state charges), The Legend of Suram Fortress is a richly textured, inimitably iconoclastic, startlingly vibrant, and elliptical yet poetic and intrinsically cohesive tale of sacrifice, captivity, and the fickle mutability of fate. Rooted in the traditional iconography of Byzantine art, Paradjanov’s visual aesthetics similarly incorporate rigid framing, frontal portraitures, still life arrangements, voluptuous ornamentation, and distanced (and alienating) long shots that capture symmetric, but physically contrasting elongated forms (most notably, in the crane shot parallel geometry of wooden caskets and hanging handcrafted rugs) that paradoxically juxtapose vast, open spaces with dark interiors (the claustrophobic wedding chapel and the soothsayer’s primitively furnished home), confined structures (the walls of Suram fortress), and historically recurring episodes of human bondage (Osman-Aga’s recounted tale of captivity in his youth that parallels Vardo’s earlier imprisonment and forced servitude). Using a culturally beloved ancient tale as an elegantly simple, but deeply personal metaphor for spiritual imprisonment, exile, and martyrdom, Paradjanov distills the narrative into a sequence of elliptical and densely layered compositions that interweave primitive, folkloric, mythologic, (Eastern Orthodoxy) religious, and (sociopolitical) allegorical imagery into a somber and pensive, yet resilient and affirming visual tapestry that indelibly capture the complex, often bittersweet panorama of personal travail and enduring human legacy.
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