Wednesday, July 21, 2010

True art film

We've all seen parodies of "art films" usually referring to Bergman, Resnais or Antonioni. Slow-moving, filled with tableaux vivant, with actors ponderously reciting strings of non sequiturs. We laugh, both at the exaggeration, but also from the conviction that the works being parodied are not sincerely felt, but intellectual grandstanding waiting to be knocked down.

On the surface, Sayat Nova: Color of Pomegranates (1968) might seem to be one of those self-important Art Films. But as it unfolds it is clear that although it is languid, non-dramatic, and filled with strange, dreamlike imagery, it is passionate and sincere. Although it is subtitled, it feels as though one was watching without titles--clearly, the director is inventing a new visual and dramatic language not indebted to the conventions of theater, novels or even other films.

I presume that it would help if one was familiar with the life and poetry of Sayat Nova, of whom the film is meant to be a portrait. It certainly has no intention of recreating dramatic turning points in his life; instead, it portrays situations and incidents in a static manner, somewhere between painting and pantomime. It does help to have some familiarity with Orthodox iconography and Armenian music, as I do. But there are very few Westerners for whom this film is not going to feel alien.

Nonetheless, seeing it has a value not unlike Godfrey Reggio's films, in which images and music tumble over each other without explanation or explicit program. (Yes, there is a program here, the life and work of Sayat Nova, but I don't know it, so for me it is the same as if it did not exist.)

This is one of those films (like the first time I saw Fellini) for which I was sure that although I did not know what the creator was doing, I was absolutely sure that he did.

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