Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa / ამბავი სურამის ციხისა [GE 1985]

Info: I embedded the full movie below.

International title: The Legend of Suram Fortress

THE PLOT

Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa is a fictionalized version of a Georgian folk tale about the building of the fortress in Surami, a small village in central Georgia. The main plot is about the farmer Durmish-Khan, who wants to free his future wife Vardo from serfdom. However, as he travels through the country, he joins the party of the rich businessman Osman-Agha and eventually marries another young woman in his entourage. Upon learning that they already have a son, Zurab, Vardo becomes a bitter fortune teller. Years later, the Czar wants to rebuild the fortress of Surami, fearing the invasion of a foreign enemy. As former attempts at building the foundation wall have always failed, he sends Zurab to Vardo to inquire how the fortress will remain structurally robust – however, Vardo claims that only human sacrifice will make the fortress stand against its enemies.

WHAT I LIKE

The movie is an art film in probably its truest sense, as it’s basically a long sequence of tableaux scenes, i.e. more or less static scenes with little camera movements. Heavy emphasis is laid on framing (e.g., Vardo’s first dance or the several scenes where people try to build the ground wall of the fortress), there is a lack of close-up shots, vibrant colors are used prominently (e.g., the colorful dresses), and the choreography is marvelous (e.g., the many dance scenes). Because of the minimal dialogue, cryptic gestures (e.g., the death of the old fortune teller), and heavy use of symbolic scenes that are used for example to collapse time (e.g., Vardo’s search for Durmish-Khan) or depict people’s motivations (e.g., how Durmish-Khan meets his wife), the plot is not told in a conventional way. However, the pacing never feels off and even the more random moments (e.g., the shots of horses and birds) never overstay their welcome and still contribute to the overall atmosphere – which is oftentimes breathtaking.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE

As there are many predominantly symbolic scenes, the depicted world feels oneiric. Given that the source material is based on an ancient Georgian tale, which is not widely known outside of its home country, many plot elements feel enigmatic, e.g. the many dance ceremonies or how certain characters behave. Intermittent shots of eating horses, carefully arranged clothes, and broken vases are somewhat decipherable in the larger context but can sometimes feel gratuitous. One example for this extreme focus on visual aesthetics is a questionable montage of the trading post; the singular shots looks marvelous but overall the sequence doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot – except for maybe the overall atmosphere. In addition, the predominant use of wide shots means that for some scenes it’s hard to keep track of what the central characters are doing.

WHY IT MATTERS

The director, Sergei Parajanov made only four movies in his lifetime. During the 1970s and 1980s he was imprisoned in a Russian Gulag for several years for his political views. Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa was his first movie after that period, however, he had to share the directing credit with actor Dodo Abashidze (Osman-Agha). It’s quite fitting that Parajanov chose to direct this movie, as it is based on Daniel Chonkadze’s novella “Suramis tsikhe” (Surami Fortress). The novella is really a criticism of serfdom, political oppression and had to be given a medieval setting due to censorship. However, the story is often interpreted as an allegory of the socio-political system of Soviet Georgia, with the ruling class literally sacrificing a human life to build a crumbling fortress. In addition, the story also touches on religious struggles between Christian and Muslim worldviews that were linked with patriotism during that time (cp. how Osman-Agha and Durmish-Khan convert due to the political circumstances).

THE VERDICT

Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa (international title: The Legend of Suram Fortress) is the fictionalized retelling of an ancient Georgian tale about a fortress that could only be built with a human sacrifice. Visually, the movie looks wonderful with vibrant colors, perfectly arranged set pieces, and a striking choreography. And while the plot remains mostly simple and central aspects and characters even seem obscure, the heavy use of symbols give the movie a dreamlike quality. Certain scenes – although aesthetically pleasing – seem to lack a clear connection to the plot, which is why the overall allegory about political oppression will remain vague for some viewers.

Overall 7/10

INTERESTING FACTS

 – The German black metal band Voidcraeft edited the movie into the music video of their song “The Vertical Mammal”.

 – Some of the original soundtrack was destroyed in a fire at the Georgian film archive in Tbilisi.

 – In one dance sequence an actors holds up a big mirror. When looking closely, one can see the camera man’s reflection.

 – Historically, Surami became a heavily fortified town in the 12th century because of the constant clashes between the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Even though the exact date when the fortress was built remains obscure, the earliest structures possibly date to that period. Still, the fortress had to be reconstructed several times, e.g. after the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774).

 – The first cinematic adaptation of the novel was the 1922 Soviet silent movie Сурамская крепость / Suramis tsikhe.

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