COMEDY, NIGHTMARE, AND MARIA SAAKYAN
One reason for choosing to watch world cinema, or for that matter reading world literature, is that the subject matter might well stir your pity and/or your political conscience. It might deal with, for example, bitter ethnic or religious conflict in East Europe or the Middle East, hence the ultimate business of life-or-death survival. Alternatively, it can be an exploration of harrowing poverty, poignant collective tragedy or other extremes, meaning that the content is inevitably gripping and engaging from the start. In the case of the 2007 Mayak (The Lighthouse) made by Armenia’s first ever female director Maria Saakyan (1980-2018) in this first full length feature she performs the unique feat of blending unhinging and instructive farce with the grim nightmare of civil war. In that respect the director’s own experience is broadly parallel to that of the film’s heroine Lena (Anna Kapaleva, born 1979). Saakyan was a victim of the Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994), where that unstable province within Azerbaijan which had an ethnic Armenian majority, led to Armenia inevitably taking the side of the secessionists. Saakyan was 8 years old when the war started, and at the age of 12 she and her parents fled the Armenian capital Yerevan for the safety of Moscow. Her film is set around 1992 which was 2 years after the USSR imploded, and when the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan etc had to swiftly come to terms with their new autonomy. For decades the lingua franca for all these countries, was Russian, and much of the film’s dialogue is in that language, which of course has guaranteed it a far larger audience than if it had been scripted entirely in Armenian. Ironically not only Maria Saakyan was displaced by ethnic war, but the scriptwriter Ghivi Shavgulidze (born 1979) had to leave Abkhazia, formerly part of Georgia, because of a secessionist conflict, and ditto the Serbian set designer Ivana Krcadinac was displaced by the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s.
It is 1992 and Lena who is in her early twenties is returning by train to her remote Armenian village from Moscow. She is hoping to get her elderly grandparents to flee the war zone, and come back to Russia with her, and has fallen asleep on the primitive locomotive with its hard, wooden seats and peasant passengers. En route the train stops at a little station where an Armenian wedding is taking place, complete with accordion music, graceful dancing, and a touching light-hearted gaiety, and which is shot in black and white. So it is that despite the murderous war, lightheartedness is still a poignant possibility. Another black and white element is the recurrent image of massed flocks of flying cranes which is surely a graphic tribute to the great Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973) and his 1957 The Cranes Are Flying. Other appreciative critics have discerned the influence of Tarkovsky (1932-1986) and his haunting cinematography, evident in his legendary films Ivan’s Childhood (1982) and Andrei Rublev (1966).
Prior to meeting her grandparents, Lena has to find her way to her own apartment along a wretched dirt road cloaked in fog. Fog and mist are ubiquitous in this movie and later we meet a village idiot (who is also in his own way very wise) improvising a sagacious two-line poem about it.
A mist is mysterious
And mystery is misty!
Because she is in a war zone, the electricity in Lena’s house is fitful. She tries fixing the sitting room light but in the end resorts to a candle in a special holder shaped like a lighthouse, hence the film’s title. Lighthouses are of course both reassuring and warning objects, and the next symbolic motif is when she puts on her favourite record from childhood, the sound track to a Russian animated version of Alice in Wonderland. The latter you may recall is both an unpredictable adventure set in two separate worlds, and also is a regular nightmare, i.e. just like a war. The next day walking the village comprised of high and stilted wooden houses, she hears neighbours who are both amiable and rowing angrily, and observes young women handwashing in metal tubs, and two very old ladies sawing up massive pieces of firewood. When she does locate her grandmother, who clings permanently to her mongrel dog for reassurance, the two of them end up accusing each other of negligence. Lena says there was no option but for her and her parents to get out of Armenia for their safety, and the grandmother (Olga Yakovleva, born 1941) insists it is all too late now to remedy matters. Later when she meets her adoring grandfather (Sos Sargasyan, 1929-2013) he assures her that neither of them wishes to leave, and even if things get very bad, because they are old, any enemy soldier is bound to leave them alone. At times these and other exchanges are shouted to the accompaniment of hovering enemy helicopters, people running for their lives, and at one point a small child screaming at the sight of a corpse floating down a rushing river…
That said, heart-warming farce allied with harrowing personal obsession, is never far away. There is neighbour Rosa (Ruzana Avetisyan) a middle-aged widow with her only son in the army, who is increasingly less in touch with his mother. Rosa’s remedy is to regularly pack a ton of luggage and wheel it on a trolley to the railway station, so that she can go in search of her boy. She does this routine every week, futile on each occasion, because the trains are all cancelled and the only ones going are those carrying troops. Worse still, she is pursued by the village idiot who eloquently dotes on her, and addresses her both as his wife and his mother. This crazy man is a splendid creation, aged about 50, spindly tall with a colossal bulbous nose, a floppy woolly hat, high boots, half-mast pants, and a strong line in megalomaniac patter.
‘My Queen Rosa!’
‘I am the great Maradona. And this is my wife, Rosalinda! These flowers are for you.’
‘But Mummy, don’t you recognise me?’
‘Go away! Just leave me alone!’
‘The doctor says not to worry, Mummy!’
On her first morning in the village, Lena accompanies Rosa and the idiot to the railway station, and en route they behold the village accordionist bullying the life out of his small son as he tries to teach him the same instrument.
‘No, not like that! No, no, no! Tell me. Are you a man, or not?’
The accordionist is also put in charge of doling out emergency rations of bread from a lorry, and which the idiot ingeniously tries to steal from behind. The enraged musician batters him over the ear with a loaf for his pains, and it is this Charlie Chaplin aspect which swiftly reminds us of two unhinging things. One is that life really does go on with its inevitable comic side even under war conditions (the same object lesson is there in Emir Kusturica’s 2004 hilarious Life Is a Miracle where a Bosnian Serb falls for a Bosnian Muslim girl, when the two of them are supposedly at war). The second is that an idiot rather like a small child cannot comprehend what a war is, and that for him it has no meaning and in fact does not exist. Thus, we later have the dizzy set piece where at a funeral the idiot with a small boy next to him is watching an outdoor TV, on which the progress of the war complete with strategic maps is being explained to the viewer. Lena’s friend Izolda (Anastasya Srebennikova, born 1984) walks over and gives him a second clout to the ear for such disrespect at a funeral, though of course death is something else that both a small child and an idiot are incapable of comprehending.
Things continue in equally surreal fashion among the non-idiotic in the village. The elderly mother in law of Izolda, Kasiana (played by veteran Soviet actress Sofiko Chaureli, 1937-2008) starts noisily smashing all her windows, as she’s heard that war encourages burglary, and if she has no windows the burglars will assume the place has nothing of value inside. Lena points out it will be very cold but Kasiana thinks it worth the risk. Meanwhile after the funeral, the grieving old mother of the young woman who died of cancer, complains to Lena that her daughter is literally calling to her from the churchyard. Lena does not know how to reply, but it is a poignant irony worth noting that the director Maria Saakyan herself died of cancer at the tragically young age of 37.
Lena’s friend Izolda brusquely informs her that her return to the village here is completely pointless. Izolda herself has problems with her boyish husband Levan (Mikhail Bogdasarov) who is a compulsive womaniser. His latest village conquest Izolda nicknames Hamster-Looking Woman, and dourly adds:
‘Men rule the world.’
Levan arrives just then and says, ‘I am the world’s dictator. I talk when I wish and I don’t talk when I don’t wish!’
The following evening there is an impromptu party with plenty of home-made brandy, where Levan’s mother passes round old family photos, and mocks her philandering son for being so bald these days. After which, frightening war zone or not, we find ourselves firmly in the tradition of the East European surreal, and the tone changes to that of directors like Jiri Menzel or Pal Sandor where the preposterous and the non sequitur have their day. The daughter in law Izolda drunkenly turns to Kasiana and says:
‘Tell him to kill that woman (the Hamster-Looking Woman)’
Kasiana to Levan, ‘Kill that woman…’
Promptly from her son. ‘Sure. No problem.’
His mother, ‘But aren’t you ashamed? You’ve got a beautiful young wife and you go and take a mistress?’
Levan picks up a boiled egg and commences to berate it for taking a mistress, tapping it punitively on the head with a spoon.
Izolda, ‘The problem is there is no female solidarity.’
Kasiana mockingly, ‘What is that? When it happened to me, I just picked up a saucepan and battered him over the head.’
To round off the fractured table talk, Lena who is also very drunk, lifts up a rifle lying nearby, accidentally fires it, and sends a number of wooden screens flying…
Fascinatingly old Kasiana turns from pragmatic to prophetic the next day. She tells Lena that she has had a dream where she was a tree and couldn’t move.
‘But then I realised I had the whole of the world inside of me when I was a tree! Water and air and fibre and everything else. So that I didn’t need to move!’
Afterwards Lena goes to visit Izolda who has a handsome little dark-eyed son called Ghivi. Ghivi is in the bath and without thinking Lena picks up his toy helicopter and starts making pretend combat noises as she runs it the length of the child’s arm. After that she takes Ghivi out for a walk and as they explore a bird’s nest lying on the ground, an enemy helicopter descends above them and Lena freezes with terror for herself and her charge. The helicopter moves off, but for sure it wasn’t a toy, and the lesson when it comes to little boys’ playthings is all too ominous.
Finally the first of a series of passenger trains arrives at the station, and it takes off Levan, Izolda and Ghivi to start a new life in Moscow. Lena without her grandparents will also depart very soon, and the film ends with archive black and white footage of a madly grieving and gesticulating Armenian woman who has lost her husband or perhaps her child. Then as abruptly it changes into an exquisite red and white streaked Armenian sunset, which wordlessly assures us that Hell and Hope and Grief and Hilarity and Ugliness and Divine Beauty, will never be completely set as worlds apart, no matter what.
NB The Lighthouse by Maria Saakyan (not to be confused with the 2019 film of the same name) is available on Second Run DVD
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