Paradjanov: Film Review

An unconventional biopic for an unconventional artist.

Directors Serge Avedikian and Olena Fetisova's suitably idiosyncratic biopic centers on the eccentric Armenian-born Soviet director Sergei Paradjanov.

ODESSA -- The eccentric life and vision of Soviet-era director Sergei Paradjanov -- a unique artist championed by the likes of Fellini, Godard, Antonioni and Tarkovsky -- are artfully suggested more than fully documented in the suitably offbeat biopic Paradjanov, from Ukrainian writer-director Olena Fetisova and French-Armenian actor-director Serge Avedikian, who also plays the lead.

The film premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and also played at Odessa, where the director's own films were also shown, a move that'll likely be replicated at other festivals in 2014, when the 90th anniversary of the Armenian-born director's birth will be celebrated.

Paradjanov is far from a complete compendium of all the major events in the director's life. Indeed, in what almost amounts to a case of willful poetic irony, the filmmaker's two marriages and his son are barely suggested, though his run-ins with the Communist authorities because of his "suspected" homosexuality are documented in quite some detail (he would eventually be sentenced to five years in prison). The director's second wife, Svetlana Tscherbatiuk (Russian star Yulia Peresild), whom he divorced in 1962 , is in fact one of the most problematic characters, occasionally floating into scenes but never part of a clear conflict or even the recipient of some kind of special affection from Paradjanov, who seemed to get along with everyone willing to acknowledge his genius.

Though the film omits or skims over large swaths of biographical detail, Paradjanov, written by co-director and producer Fetisova, is neither a fully artistic expression of Paradjanov's vision and poetry that completely ignores narrative conventions in the way the master's most famous film, 1968's The Color of Pomegranates, did when he made what turned out to be a work that was only nominally a biographical film about Sayat-Nova, Armenia's most famous poet-troubadour.

Instead, this Ukrainian-French-Armenian-Georgian co-production remains suspended between these two extremes, creating a narrative throughline by staging some of the key moments in the filmmaker's life while occasionally making room for more absurd and surreal scenes that suggest something of the poetic and visual powers that the visionary filmmaker was capable of. He's also seen directing scenes of several of his films, including his work with actress Sofiko Chiaureli, who played six roles in Pomegranates including the young male lead, his muse and love interest.

It's a gamble that mostly works, suggesting at once something of the unique personality and of the life of the filmmaker, who arguably made the defining film in the cinema history of not one but three countries: Pomegranates in Armenia, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors in Ukraine and The Legend of Suram Fortress in Georgia (though all of these were part of the Soviet Union during the director's life).

That said, it is unlikely that audiences completely unfamiliar with Paradjanov's life and work and the authoritarian Soviet regime will be able to fully follow everything that happens -- though the film is accessible enough for any curious arthouse enthusiast with a basic knowledge of the region.

Co-director Avedikian is not only a good physical match for Paradjanov but crucially, he also manages to suggest the charisma, imagination and talent that made the man such an admired artist, making some of his capricious diva antics almost feel well-deserved rather than annoying.

Cinematography and especially production design and costumes are key in establishing both moods and physical spaces, with the director's cluttered and colorful Yerevan home, where even Marcello Mastroianni comes by for a visit, a clear highlight.

Venue: Odessa International Film Festival
Production companies: Interfilm Production Studio, Araprod, Gemini, Paradise, Arte France
Cast: Serge Avedikian, Yulia Peresild, Karen Baladov, Zaza Kashibadze, Alla Sergiyko, Yuriy Vysotskii, Roman Lutskiy, Konstantin Voytenko, Ferdinando Vicentini Orgnani
Directors: Serge Avedikian, Olena Fetisova
Screenwriter: Olena Fetisova
Producer: Olena Fetisova
Executive producer: Volodymyr Kozyr
Director of photography: Sergei Mikhalchuk
Production designer: Vladyslav Ryzhkov
Music: Michel Karsky
Costume designer: Irina Gergel
Editors: Alexandra Strauss, Olexandr Shvets
Sales: Interfilm Production Studio
No rating, 95 minutes