Pantheon Int'l #49: AZERBAIJAN - 'Ashik Kerib'

Pantheon Int'l is a daily blogging project; I'll be watching a movie from a different country every day for the next four months and writing about it.   Click here for a complete list with links to each article.

Ashik Kerib, d. Sergei Parajanov, Azerbaijan, 1988, 74min., Drama

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"The light of day is as unbearable as the gloom of night if we are apart."

After releasing Sayat Nova (which I reviewed here yesterday), Parajanov found himself at odds with Soviet officials and eventually was imprisoned for four years.  Aside from Armenian pride, there's nothing in the film that seems particularly like a political message, but anything where meaning was too oblique for officials to understand was likely to be singled out for fear of hidden subversive messages.  That film certainly doesn't uphold the values of socialist realism: that every story or work of art should have a straightforward meaning that the audience can take away as a lesson.  It's possible that they also found something disturbing about having actress Sofiko Chiaureli portray the male character with androgynous beauty; homosexuality was one of the trumped-up charges used against Parajanov.

He made the best of his time in prison and wrote dozens of books and screenplays, so he had plenty of material ready-to-go to make a strong comeback in the 1980s.  Obviously, I chose to watch Ashik Kerib as Azerbaijani cinema (which is otherwise unrepresented in the U.S.), but it turned out to be a good follow-up to Sayat Nova as they are similar in theme and story.

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The story is based on an old Caucasian folktale that Parajanov loved as a child.  Kerib, an ashik or troubadour (like Sayat Nova), falls in love with a girl, but is too poor to please her father.  He is given 1,000 days to go out into the world and become wealthy enough for her, or she will be forced to wed the village douchebag.  This douchebag follows Kerib out to the river and tricks him into leaving his robes behind, which he uses to convince everyone that Kerib died and won't be returning.  Kerib wanders the world amassing wealth and tales to tell his grandchildren, unaware that his lover is mourning his death, and eventually gets back in time to stop her wedding with the aid of a magical teleporting horse.

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This kind of story would not hold up to modern adaptation, but it's plenty for Parajanov to work with.  Again, he uses carefully composed tableaux vivants rich with poetic symbolism and plenty of Azerbaijani music and costumes, but in Ashik Kerib there is a much more definite storyline to follow.  

Where the actors in Sayat Nova aimed to be blank slates, here the actors use over-exaggerated, theatrical gestures and facial expressions and even some slapstick humor.  One of the villains shows his displeasure by thrusting his buttocks at the audience and slapping them heartily.  This behavior, along with the exaggerated make-up, suggest some form of ancient Caucasian, Kabuki-like theatre.  I don't know if there is such a thing, or if Parajanov is folding an East Asian influence into his strange mix.

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Sayat Nova (aka The Color of Pomegranates) is a masterpiece that Ashik Kerib couldn't hope to surpass, but it makes a perfect companion piece and even improves on certain aspects of the formula.  Where Sayat Nova felt confined to one location, exterior and interior architecture filmed mostly in close-up, Ashik Kerib makes good use of the diverse terrain of Azerbaijan and feels more like a part of the real world.  Azerbaijan diverges from Armenia and Georgia in being primarily Muslim rather than Orthodox Christian; pomegranates and livestock are prevalent symbols in both films, but the music is strikingly different.

Ashik Kerib also trumps Sayat Nova in actually making several pointed political statements.  In one scene, Kerib is in Georgia and finds compassionate refuge with Christians.  A title card informs us that there is only one God; the Christian God and the Muslim God are the same, there should be no reason for the two to fight.  In other scenes, Parajanov introduces anachronisms which remind us that history repeats itself.  Synthesized music and toy machine guns draw us back to the 1980s and remind us that war-like religious fervor should be a thing of the ancient past but is not.  

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And finally, Parajanov ends Ashik Kerib - which would turn out to be the last film he would complete - with a happy ending, and then a reveal of his own modern movie camera.  As a filmmaker, Parajanov made films in and about the folklore of four different countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Ukraine - and had become the modern equivalent of the poet-ashik.
 
Ashik Kerib is available on DVD and, more economically, in a box-set with Sayat Nova and several other Parajanov films.