by Daisy Fried
Komitas (1869-1935) was an Armenian monk, composer and ethnomusicologist. After the Turkish
government slaughtered three-quarters of the Armenian population - 2
million people - in 1915, Komitas (played in this film by Samvel
Ovasapian) wrote not another note of music and spent the last 20 years of
his life in mental institutions.
This intensely beautiful movie has no plot. It's a visual/ aural
non-linear biography of a land, a people, a life-lost. Russian/
German-Armenian director Don Askarian trains a meticulous, excruciatingly
slow but ever-moving camera on image after cryptic image, never denying
the subjectivity, nor doubting the rightness of what he chooses to film.
The hyper-detail keeps the viewer's eyes roving around the screen as the
camera backs up to expand the frame, as people move in, out or across, as
the camera moves closer to its focus, if that will reveal more. if the
camera stops, it seems to tremble with tension.
Segment follows segment - titled the likes of "Hospital" "Childhood" and
"Journey." Scenes break down. Men sit and play music. One blows a piercing
note on a wind instrument, which breaks a carafe of milk. The scene
changes. There's water and more water. It falls, drips, gushes, trickles,
crumbling what it touches, washing things away.
Invariably; something else is revealed. In a downpour, the rain comes
through a battered wall upon which is a drawing of a seraph. The wall
starts to crumble; behind it is a little shelf with two vessels, which
overflow with brilliant blue-and-ochre paint, which stains the wall as it
Obsessive metaphors - fire is another big one - are accessible, obvious
enough, but never self-indulgent or overdetermined.
A dirt roof cascades onto a man's head. Animals dash and dance. People sit
still. A snail crawls, slow as the camera. People act like animals. A man
is lifted from a stupor as if he's a charmed snake. Books and musical
scores are so much paper.
There are lots of religious images, tablets and scrolls and pictures,
priests in full garb with ritual objects. There is detail even in the
emptiness of a wall. Any spoken words are less conversation than poetic
And there is much sound - sometimes music played by men on screen,
sometimes just the sound of things - rain, fire crackling, heels
tip-tapping, shoes scuffing in a hall game, insects buzzing - as though
the silence of death and the absence of Komitas' music mike up the noises
of everything else.
There's not a speck of gaiety in this movie, but there's a ticklish
delight in choices made. For example, a woman (Margarita Woskanian) steps
off a ladder, her long skirt flips, her stockings are seamed. The color of
the ribbon on her hat is the same as the paint on the wall.
There are occasional corpses, but Askarian isn't interested in gore. A few
scenes of violence are filmed in black-and-white, the sound muffled, the
film speeded up. The camera backs off as if in horror and slow-mo’s it.
The second time we see this scene (we often go back to scenes, with
shifted emphasis), we find an old woman who was out of the frame before,
kneeling at a broken grave marker, flapping her arms out, clasping her
hands, keening, breaking things upon the stone. Askarian seems to be
exploring how the mind works - remembering, selective. If you can sit
through this movie, you'll be glad you did. It makes meanings just as an
obscure poem, a piece of music, a postmodern dance, makes meanings pushing
at the audience without resolving. And somehow, sense is made out of bits
and pieces of anguish, insanity and revelation.
Volume XXII, No. 42 05. 05. 1993