The Legend of the Surami Fortress Review
The Legend of the Surami Fortress is in many ways an exceptional film, operating on several levels as work of art with a unique visual aspect; as an historical document; an exploration of myth and legend and a fervent expression on nationalism, courage and sacrifice in the name of freedom. Coming from Georgian director Sergei Paradajanov, taking up the reins of filmmaking again after a break of 15 years, having spent four of those years imprisoned by the Soviet authorities, it’s not difficult either to see The Legend of the Surami Fortress as a reflection and summation of values that the director holds most dear - so deep and personal an expression and so related to Georgian myth and tradition that it can be somewhat bewildering to the viewer looking in on it from the outside.
While there are many obscure and incomprehensible elements scattered throughout the film and expressed in a highly distinctive manner – a series of visually arresting images in remarkably staged scenes – the underlying core of the film and the personal circumstances that it alludes to is not difficult to discern in the release of Durmishkhan (Zura Kipshidze) from prison at the start of the film. Wishing to celebrate his freedom and express it in his art, Durmishkhan runs to his wife Vardo (Sofiko Chiaureli) and asks her to put on a dance performance with him for the Prince, promising that he will soon earn enough riches to buy her freedom also from servitude. Hearing however that the Surami Fortress is once again in peril, its walls crumbling to the ground, a defect that it has suffered from throughout the ages, Durmishkhan hastens back to his home land, but finds that the freedom that he thought he had been granted is worthless and nothing more than a meaningless show to impress important guests.
The use of myth and legend is an important way of passing on tradition, values and beliefs, using storytelling as a means of relating and expressing the deep values of a nation and its people, upholding essential truths and beliefs. Often, for a nation and its people living under an oppressive regime, it’s the only means of expressing those values, looking on one’s religious customs, sense of national pride and freedom from a cultural, historical and allegorical perspective, a view that is perhaps less threatening to the authorities than a more open and direct expression of independence and autonomy. That certainly seems to be the case in the The Legend of the Surami Fortress, the fortress itself representing the nation of Georgia, built on unstable foundations, threatened with collapse throughout the ages, ultimately needing the sacrifice of a brave young warrior who, allowing himself to be buried within its walls, will give it the strength to withstand the worst of times. The fact that the film dedicates itself in its opening titles "to the memory of the Georgian warriors of all times who have given their lives for the freedom of their country" should make the allegory quite clear.
But still, there is much more to The Legend of the Surami Fortress that this. In many ways in is in itself a way of preserving and passing on Georgian values and tradition, the film peopled with important historical and legendary figures, filled with music, dance and emblems, religious icons and national costumes, all interwoven into a tapestry of exquisite beauty. Filmed largely outdoors against the backdrop of the Georgian landscape, in ruins of historical significance, in caves and in villages carved out of mountains that act as a natural and meaningful stage for these glorious displays of magic, tradition, legend, customs and religious observance, the film becomes increasingly abstract, moving towards performance art. Even if one doesn’t understand what is going on all the time, there is a sense that you are seeing the heart and soul of a nation laid bare, and the manner in which Paradjanov expresses this is impressive and meaningful in the context of its subject.
That may be the only level however upon which an outside viewer can appreciate The Legend of the Surami Fortress, allowing themselves to be swept along with the splendour of the imagery and the invention, admiring the historical importance of what the film is about and the courage and brilliance of a great artist to come back to filmmaking after 15 years and express the tumult of feelings in a unique and personal way. Connecting to the film in a meaningful manner however may be rather difficult for the average viewer who is unfamiliar with the circumstances of the director or his country, or indeed anyone less inclined to be stirred by expressions of deep Georgian nationalist fervour in abstract tableau vivant stagings.
The Legend of the Surami Fortress is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is not region coded.
Artificial Eye’s transfer evidently comes from the Russian Cinema Council source, and the DVD consequently has the same qualities and issues commonly associated with films released under the Ruscico label. The image is rather soft, losing detail in wide shots, but looking acceptable elsewhere and fine in close-up. Colours are relatively strong, but fluctuate and are slightly faded. Elsewhere there is some flicker in the transfer through brightness or through the telecine transfer. Grain is evident and can be a little excessive in places, causing a few minor compression issues and making the transfer seem a little blocky (a frequent problem on Ruscico releases). Overall, the image is certainly acceptable, capturing the film’s visual qualities reasonably well, but not exceptionally.
The audio track is the original Georgian-Armenian soundtrack in Dolby Digital 1.0, however there are a few passages where a Russian narrator speaks over proclamations and recitations, which I am sure is not meant to be on the original track. I’m not sure why this is only done selectively. The sound quality is adequate only. It’s a little dull and booming and appears to be fractionally out of sync.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. There are no noticeable issues here.
The extras are the usual eccentric Ruscico affair, but interesting and highly informative. Sergei Paradjanov (26:26) consists of an interview with the director’s wife, Svetlana Shcherbatyuk, who provides a personal reminiscence on their relationship as well as relating the nature of the problems Paradjanov had with the authorities, leading up to his arrest and imprisonment. She reads some of his letters from his time in prison, and displays the sketches and drawings on them, as well as looking at some of his later artwork and installations. Veriko Andzhaparidze (9:21) is a profile of the grand actress - the fortune-teller in the film - showing her pride in her Georgian heritage and speaking eloquently about the power of the theatre. Architecture of Ancient Georgia (6:20) is an archive film showing the landscape, churches and castles of the country. Mixed in together in the usual Ruscico way, you can find a gallery of impressive stills from The Legend of the Surami Fortress, along with biographies, filmographies and trailers for the principal cast and crew.
Certainly one of the most important artists and filmmakers to come from Georgia, the visual and allegorical qualities of Sergei Paradjanov’s The Legend of the Surami Fortress are clearly evident even if the patriotic, nationalistic sentiments expressed through its mythological setting may not always comprehensible or meaningful for most viewers. It’s a demanding film in that respect and much will depend on how willing the viewer is to let themselves be seduced by the images on a purely sensory level rather than seeking any rational or narrative purpose in the film. Taken from the Ruscico source, the UK release by Artificial Eye has its problems, but presents a reasonably good quality presentation of the film with interesting and informative extra features.