BY BEDROS AFEYAN
A true artist senses the flow of living strife, feels each molecule react to the impulse and force of being, wishing, wanting, screaming in silence, and launches war on ignorance and apathy with each breath. Every artist worth his salt misses no nuance and feels every injustice scratch his heart, wound his soul, sand his senses to the oblivion he will not espouse. Vicken Chaldranian is a living, burning artist and we are lucky to have him fighting the good fight. He has made a series of remarkable movies as an auteur, weaving himself into each story, each plane, each refraction of the light in or out of focus in a world that largely does not care and discards that which is precious for the fleeting pleasures of ephemera. He captures on film, in sound, in mostly whites, blacks, grays and browns; and mustaches and beards; and tattered torn dresses – the symphony of essence and remembrance.
I can strongly recommend his latest masterpiece, smoother and more natural, self-confident and self-contained than others before it, that laid the path. The current film, “The Silence of The Priest, or Alter Ego,” is an homage to Gomidas Vartabed, Armenian priest, supreme musicologist of the late 19th century, and the savior of Armenian music and its miraculous beauty. Gomidas saved our vast musical heritage from Turkification, Kurdification, ignoramuses led convolutions, village by village distortions, all of which were musically analyzed, cared for like a broken bird’s wings, and brought back to flight. This man of God, this orphan turned singer, celibate priest, musical prodigy, composer, choir master, haunted soul, disdained, envied, anguished, himself harassed in the seminary, exiled, exhausted, exalted by the beauty of the simplicity of village life, is a hero and an emblem for every Armenian who sings without a voice, dreams without the prospect of privilege, climbs walls of defiance, and leaves behind a treasure trove for the world, not unlike Vigen Chaldranian himself.
A Chaldranian movie is not one or another manifestation of a world around us, but a total package of multidimensional sedimentations and stacked interwoven excavations of voices, vectors of love and dance, authentic yet dreamt, silky smooth and desert dry, never saturated in colors that detach or detract, loud and voiceless, more real than real itself, chiseled in thought. At the end of the day, Vigen starts and ends in the world of thought and connections. Not neurons and synapses, but propositions and predicates. He lights a fire under that which is, that whichmwishes to be, won’t be, and asks what if they all were, always were and always will be, at least for the next two hours nestled in my fingers caressing this sequence of images till they breath again, sing again, love again and dream of being free.
His is the art of snow-white canvases attracting the perfect piped pitch of freedom. His call is always towards freedom of expression and reflection, freedom of sympathy and compassion. Not the mercantile self-effacement and political calculation led crumbling moral spineless slime slithering on the national scene as leaders or posers. Vigen sees the acts of heroes where others imagine quick fixes, clever lies that destroy the fabric of a nation from within, like no external enemy could, no matter how hard they in turn try.
Vigen spares no angle, no frame or zoomed exposure towards ever evading, morphing living testaments of facts and fiction, impressions and expressions, salutations and revulsions, negations and surrenders, stated, enacted, capitulated, regretted, or otherwise executed in broad daylight and in the shame of mounting masquerades in endless orgies of compromise. His world has Gods and Priests, mental hospital dwellers, all dreamers and believers in blacks and whites: absolutes and measures of sustained thrust. He depicts how the oversized forces of mediocrity so often crush the wild flowers of volcanic ash and little sunlight, yearning to live and be. His are the sagas of success and regress. Mountains promised and planets destroyed by greed and senseless evil forces chasing meaningless fleeting goals with no disguise.
In The Priest’s Silence, Vigen has a novelist become his subject, chase his subject, tremble and bow in front of his subject, help bring to life his subject, his image, his conscience, his daughter, her baby, a nation waiting to be born, the furnace of hope and steadfast purpose that is art chasing life, chasing propositions in logical strife. Alter Ego indeed: you and I are one. All arguments lead to Yerevan. Come by my side, ideas grazing in the grass of the past and nourish our hungry souls, is Vigen’s cry in cultural nitrocellulose.
The life of Gomidas’s music is unsilenced, the death of Gomidas’ dream has been denied. He lives among our bones and marrow, reproduced in secret and transmitted through each fiber of our DNA as Mozart is to Salzburg and Austria, Jazz to America and Verdi to Italian Opera. Gomidas, as a man of the cloth, of humble, unprivileged origins, roaming the streets as an orphan at the age of eight abandoned by a drunk father, plucked from obscurity and taken to the Holy Seminary at Etchmiadzin, in Russian Armenia, for an education few could receive in the nineteenth century. He believed in the God of the New Testament and his message of love.
He believed in the good that is in every man and his purpose to serve God and to serve the glory of creation. If it was music the gift he was bestowed, then it was through music that he would serve God. Serve the chiseled beauty of a song like the vibrant flower fields of spring, like the laughter of brooks and that of children, like the majesty of mountains and the solemnity of eternal devotion. God gave him a voice and an ear and a talent for endless inexhaustible music, and so this force would be used to serve God, preserve his creation and reflect his generosity and omnipresence.
But then, the Genocide took place in 1915. Armenians were killed in the millions. God was silent, apparently absent. God must have ben asleep at the wheel of the congregational house of (Western) Armenia full of worshipful flock being burned in their churches by Turks and Kurds indiscriminately, for not denying their faith and becoming Muslims on demand. They died in desert marches and torturous dungeons. They were skewered by scimitars and hung from trees and poles on sides of roads. They were thrown in rivers running red with blood and make shift mass graves, in months that burned their past, or so was hoped, by Young Turk War Criminals and barbarian thugs from Macedonia. But our saga did not end there. We survived. We picked up the small pieces left over of a great nation of culture and enterprise and we tried to move on.
This was no longer possible for Gomidas. If he found God’s voice and God’s plan in man and taped into it with his music, the Genocide negated that transaction once and for all. How could God be good and he the servant of a God who abandoned his people so cruelly and abruptly and allowed the Genocide? What was left to say or compose? What music could dutifully depict this old God of denial and destruction? A God Of hate and humiliation. Of finality and cruelty never before seen by man, but soon to be repeated in the rest of the twentieth century, time and again, with impunity. So Gomidas first stopped speaking Armenian once and for all. Only spoke Turkish and then in fear of being caught by the gendarmes, whether in an Istanbul mental hospital or a Parisian one. That fear and obsession never left him. He was always expecting to be sent back into the desert and this time not being spared. This time shot for real and not just in a mock execution for the amusement of his captors. He spoke less and less, never again in Armenian, and then he was totally silent. Till he died years later. No more music. No more song, dance, sunlight, masses, oratorios, choral arrangements, string quartets. A heart dried, a soul crushed. But our music lives because of his diligent toil before the calamity! Our music lives in the full glory that he allowed to be exalted and nothing can change that! It is as Armenian as Mount Ararad, as fragile as a newborn baby’s wide-eyed smile, and as robust in hope and potential as a rushing river coursing through time.
Chaldranian creates a world around Gomidas in his silent asylum in France. And transports his spirit to Yerevan, where it is so desperately needed. Gomidas sings within the novelist who is searching for him. He sings through the walls of other mental hospitals where others are silent or screaming, no matter, no mind. He dances through the streets with protesters trying to stop disorder and mafias of one kind or another from taking over the Republic. He mentors his university students to capture the universal values that make us humans and not just animals in the wild. He is fired for encouraging bold change and freedom of thought.
Vigen navigates to Paris and through the surrogate mother of a nation, of an infant with no potential parents and perhaps a whole country to adopt, the film gives birth to hope and heart. He flicks pages of books and sends them to the wind, as an homage to Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova, church rooftops and ancient manuscripts in the rain, a child reading eagerly: let us not be animals and not thugs. He and mother Armenia, his charge, howl to the wind and kiss in the mist of time. He depicts Armenians crawling towards the future in double time, haunted by a past that refuses to remain silent and a present that should be more attractive and seductive than many find it and flee, this time voluntarily.
A nation is a state of mind. Its colors and textures are in every scene of Alter Ego, in every scratchy recording of Gomidas’ own voice, heard in the background, guiding the traffic of emotions, through the juxtapositions and superpositions that constitute the magic of cinema, we see the wand of an unacknowledged legislator of the world, a title given to poets by Shelley, before movies took up the mantle and ran with it into the good night. Debussy’s music helps draw contrasts as modernity and dissonance began with that piece, sections of which we hear throughout Alter Ego with great effectiveness: l’Apres Midi d’un Faune, intermingled with a contemporary score that weaves the ancient with the classical, Armenian village songs with the digital impersonal disembodied alarms of trauma and strife.
All the actors are brilliant in this movie and so very little taxed per scene, but always creating a whole much larger than the sum of its parts. It is Vigen’s grasp of the power of cinema and its minimalist needs that fuels the magic this time as in every outing before. This is mastery and craftsmanship giving voice to the literally silenced. It is love rendered to Armenian magicians of the past; our poets, our intellectuals, our leaders and moral spires, inspiring their rebirth, their regeneration, their recreation drinking from the well of that boisterously noisy state of being: Armenians together, alive!