Appointment-viewing streaming platform Le Cinéma Club offers up a rare gem this week in the form of Dodo Abashidze and Sergei Parajanov’s 1988 drama Ashik Kerib, a lavish folk-romance-cum-ethnographic-study bursting with all manner of earthly delights. From the chiseled physique and saucer-eyes of titular lead Yuri Mgoyan, to the doleful ballads issuing from his cupid’s-bow mouth, Parajanov’s final feature film bedecks Russian Romanticist Mikhail Lermontov’s obscure account of star-crossed Caucasian lovers with finery befitting a blushing bride.
A familiar premise, found everywhere from Tashkent to Timbuktu, sets the stage for our hero’s epic 1,001-day-long journey. Driven by his love for the daughter of a wealthy lord, Kerib leaves the safety of his village to secure a much-needed dowry. With his blessed lute in hand, the heartsick minstrel travels incognito from kingdom to kingdom, serving as our proverbial tour guide through the windswept steppe. While light on plot and dialogue, Ashik Kerib (translated, roughly, to “Strange Kerib”) unfurls like an elaborate tapestry, harnessing the power of symbolic objects to create an iconographical palette of richness and splendor.
Over his forty-year career, Parajanov earned a well-deserved place as the Soviet Union’s foremost film poet, reviving regional folk tales, songs, and superstitions long-forgotten in the USSR’s mad drive toward monoculture. The loving archeology at work in prior films like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) and his career-defining The Color of Pomegranates (1969) reaches its apex here: by combining centuries-old rituals with politically-coded anachronisms, Abashidze and Parajanov recreate a “past” beyond the limits of historical narrative. If the nuances of Azerbaijani culture are not your métier, worry not: such is the power of Parajanov’s cinematic alphabet, a language of beauty all can comprehend.
Ashik Kerib is streaming on Le Cinéma Club, through January 6.