MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Ashik Kerib'--Something Rich, Strange

The allegories in “Ashik Kerib” are on a child’s level. They are not philosophical. If you are a poet, armor will interfere with your song; if you see the blind, give them a caress.

--Sergei Paradjanov

Watching Paradjanov’s tender little masterpiece, “Ashik Kerib"(at the Nuart for one week) is almost like gazing at a delicate Persian miniature that suddenly flames into life and begins to shake and dance. The film is a feast of color, a banquet of music, an orgy of poetry and sensuality, yet it’s also overpoweringly strange. It really transports us into another world--not the world of the past, the medieval Caucasus, where it supposedly takes place, or the 19th-Century Russia of its writer, Mikhail Lermontov--but a realm that seems somehow outside time, of pure poetry, childhood delight.

There’s an ecstatic abandon about this movie, a curious mixture of extreme sophistication and conscious naivete. It’s a rapturously strange, eccentric fairy tale about a poor minstrel’s seven-year odyssey to save his loved one from forced marriage by her Turkish merchant father. This simple story becomes a visual feast, filled with fruits, silks, castles, camels, birds, magical landscapes, mysterious hills and plains--as Paradjanov and co-director David Abachidze give us the tale in painterly images, constant music and two layers of narration, dialogue and mime. (“Ashik” was shot in the Muslim dialect Azerbaijani and the Georgian translation is dubbed on top of it, making for a cross-babble that might ordinarily annoy you. Here, it seems magically appropriate.)

Lermontov’s tale of love triumphant becomes, for Paradjanov, something else: the odyssey of a young artist and lover through a hostile and treacherous world. The film’s minstrel, Ashik (Yuri Goyan), naively tries to woo and buy his love with a bowl full of flowers, but though her heart is won, her father explodes in anger and ridicule, demanding something more tangible: money.

Ashik’s journey to get it for him is an odyssey of absurdity and woe. When the lover leaves to earn his fortune, his unscrupulous rival steals his clothes and declares him dead; the kind old musician who teaches him dies in his arms, pomegranate juice bleeding over his lips. His most attentive audience is blind; the nabobs and warlords who hire him are lunatics and voluptuaries who will kill him if they dislike his song. In this world, death and ruin are everywhere, but miracles abound: two-headed tigers whirl, winged horses take flight. Love is a frail flower blooming on a crazy battlefield.


Paradjanov shapes this luminous film poem, which he dedicates to his late colleague, Andrei Tarkovsky, as if for a children’s stage show. The actors face front and caper. The scenes, done in the rigid tableau style of his earlier “The Color of Pomegranates,” look like creches filled with toys. Most film directors, even the fantasists, try to persuade us of the reality of their stories. Paradjanov’s style, which has the straightforward look of a documentary or of Renoir’s 1928 version of “The Little Match Girl,” instead keeps insisting on unreality.

There’s a dark substratum here. This film about an artist in conflict with society was directed by a Soviet film maker who, after shooting to world prominence in 1965 with the lyrical masterpiece “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” was convicted on charges that included homosexuality and spent 11 years in prison. You can sense this current vaguely beneath the bright, toylike surfaces of “Ashik Kerib” (Times-rated: Family), but it’s remarkably free of bitterness. It’s like a spectacular but delicate flower that blooms in darkness and confinement, banishing the squalor with its childlike joy.