Sergei Paradjanov, the renowned Armenian filmmaker, whose dazzlingly irreverent works caused an equal amount of consternation for the Soviet authorities and wonderment among his devotees, comes alive for audiences in the 2013 biopic.
Paradjanov, directed by Olena Fetisova and Serge Avedikian—who plays the man himself—was a joint Armenian, French, Georgian and Ukrainian production. Its 2013 premiere in Odessa, Ukraine, came on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the filmmaker's January 9, 1924 birth in Soviet Georgia.
Rather than delving into odious detail about the filmmaker's personal life or film plots, Paradjanov seamlessly blends snippets of his eccentric drive for his mind's perfection executed in diva-like behavior on his movie sets and at home.
"Paradjanov is a genius!" two boy’s call out, sounding trumpets at a bizarre and glamorous reception for potential financial backers. It is a memorable scene in the biopic—the moment when the long-shunned director seizes his return to film.
Though considered one of the most spectacular art house filmmaker’s of the 20th century, Paradjanov only made four feature films (he disavowed all his previous works of the Soviet-condoned "socialist realism" genre in 1964).
Perhaps the most memorable for Armenians for its focus on a national icon is The Color of Pomegranates, an extraordinarily interpretive take on the youth of poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. But in Paradjanov, we learn the backstory of his subversive choosing not only a non-Armenian, but also a woman—Sofiko Chiaureli—to play the role of the eminent male poet.
In a particularly illustrative scene, Paradjanov's friend and business partner is in crisis mode after the Armenian government, which is providing funding for his production of The Color of Pomegranates, expresses their outrage at his casting decision.
"She is Sayat Nova!" he cries out, half giggling and half shouting to his frustrated but unflagging colleague, who replies tersely, but already knowing it is a lost cause: "But she is a woman, and Sayat Nova was a man."
"But she's a hermaphrodite," he cackles, visibly proud of himself for coasting the boundaries.
Throughout the film, his key moments of intransigence and almost diva-like behavior on set are accepted as because of his charm and brilliance. In one scene, he demands that props used cannot be just any rugs, but authentic hand woven carpets stamped on by the wooden shoes of Kurdish village women.
Paradjanov's charming cheekiness also lands him in hot water. His highlighting of distinct regional traditions—from Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors set in Ukraine to showing Azerbaijan through the lens of Ashik Kerib—are less than appreciated by the central authorities who seek to maintain one Soviet identity.
He lands in jail multiple times on charges ranging from bribery to homosexuality—a part of his life that is not shied away from by the directors. Indeed, the film tackles the duality of Paradjanov's personal life, from an alleged relationship with the son of a KGB officer, to his close bond with his wife and their friendship that endures long after their separation.
Paradjanov never stopped creating, even in a maximum-security prison in Siberia. He created ornate portraits by hammering from old coins, and his fellow prisoners inspired his art. He even gains the favor of a prison gang leader, who takes a liking to a garish portrait of him.
For years, Paradjanov was banned from cinema by the Soviet authorities; he did not flee, but instead took to making sumptuous collages, using everything from shells to glass and old family photographs. In one of his less subtle works, he places a woman's high-heeled shoe in a birdcage.
The genius of Paradjanov, however, is his ability to cut across cultural boundaries and spurn nationalism, while simultaneously bringing forgotten traditions and ancestral details of the Caucasus to life. A testament to his regional appeal was the selection of Paradjanov as Ukraine's submission for the Academy Award in the foreign language film category. Like his casting of a Georgian to play Sayat Nova, Ukrainians chose an Armenian to show the richness and depth of their at once unique and universal culture.