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The Critical Corner - 03/12/2007

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PRIESTESS COMES AND GOES SPEAKING OF AGATHANGELOS

Armenian News Network / Groong
March 12, 2007

    THE PRIESTESS (in Armenian with English subtitles, 35mm, 109 minutes).
    Directed by Vigen Chaldranian.
    Written by Anahit Aghasarian and Vigen Chaldranian.
    Produced by ArmenFilm (Yerevan, Armenia) and Symphony Studios (Hollywood
	CA), Mel Metcalfe III, Sahak Ekshian and Vigen Chaldranian Producers.
    Marine Sargsyan plays the King's all powerful sister.
    Vigen Chaldranian plays the ancient manuscript scholar and Mihr the
	Pagan god.
    Rouzan Vit Mesropyan plays the title role of the Priestess and the
	modern day car accident victim/amnesiac who channels her.
    Original music by Ara Gevorkian and Nathan Lanier.
    http://www.thepriestessmovie.com/


By Bedros Afeyan


Movies are first and foremost a magician's medium. You reveal and 
hide at the same time, imply and deny in turns, hint and erase at 
once, hypnotize, seduce, incite and invade with insolence, yet only 
flickering lights remain, hints of colors flashed by, a haunted score
reverberating into the night passages of your skull as you regauge 
what is real, what is real to you, what is comprehensible, possible, 
plausible, dangerous, safe and serene and fall back into your routine
of unheightened expectations until another magician gets a hold of 
your soul and in an hour and thirty minutes (or more) gives your 
darkening horizons a wider stretch, a hope drenched panorama of 
menus, visions and revisions from which to choose.

Whether entire universes are imagined, or the stone hut of a villager
near the Majestic Garni Pagan Temple (still standing, reassembled) in
Armenia in the fourth century AD, whether bearded priests chanting 
fear and folly or ancient manuscript scholars and no nonsense 
surgeons toiling to define their truth in Yerevan today, to share 
their time, to see and not see, to be and not be, to exist or never 
to have existed at all, THAT is what is Armenian above all. If you 
need a primer on Gar oo Chigar, (there did exist and there may not 
have existed at all) see Vigen Chaldranian's highly accomplished work
of authentic magic, The Priestess.

Try and make sense of your inner world despite the external senseless
barrage of sensory perceptions invading your contemplative nature, 
add the magic of make believe, the imagination, and build your own 
burning cauldron, then perhaps you have the makings of an artist with
the mechanisms in place to store and churn, mix and fuse, find and 
fight the truth as it reveals itself to you and then hides like a 
playful lover who is not ready to get down to business yet. What can 
you do but write odes dedicated to those epiphanous moments, those 
sure shakes of uncrumbled hopes, unshriveled shrill cries of 
illegitimate connections and corrupting conundrums which keep you 
from her, her truth, her play, this muse of a thousand colors, an 
artist's stumbling search for the essence of construction and 
scaffolding in an otherwise random roll of the dice, and that roll 
upon roll upon roll throughout the billions of years that bring us to
man, naked, in the desert cold, looking upon the skies and their 
majesty and asking why?

An artist's answer is closer to that of the religious man. There is 
order, we are not here to figure it out but to acknowledge it and 
render homage to its splendor through our work and dedication to the 
mighty force that belief and awe give, faith and surrender bring, 
ecstasy and  joyous eruptions promise, if the stars are aligned just 
right and internal demons can be choked by rituals of concentration 
and repetitive role play. The artist faces the blank canvas, the lit 
camera on one's shoulder, the metal working gear at hand and for a 
moment, wishes for nothing better than a ritual to start the series 
of accidents and perturbations that will result in his grand oeuvre, 
his next summit. Why not a prayer? Why not an elaborate washing, 
dressing, chanting, gargling, neck stretching, fingers cracking, 
shoulders rolling exercise to bring on the juice, to invite in the 
muse for the roll in the thousand dances of chance, splotches, 
splinters, jitter in the camera, shadows, shades, a dog barking, and 
in sum, a magic thing. A story, a backward glancing firm thread. A 
connected series of dots and dashes calling for meaning, firmament 
and permanence and then, simply, fade out.

Imagine the possibilities then when an artist takes on the subject of
man's turmoil at the moments of transition and crisis as major 
religions migrate, spread, surplant, evolve and adapt to new cultures
and new traditions. Such was the case in 301 AD in Armenia when the 
Christians were no longer hunted down and killed as heretics but that
role reversal occurred between hunted and hunter with the Pagan gods 
and the many classes of priests and priestesses, seer sayers and 
shamans that roamed the land, mostly servicing rich kings and 
noblemen who could afford the luxury of their favors. There were 
temples and oversized statues as well as specific virtues and 
territory these gods had carved out for themselves. Whether borrowed 
from the Greek tradition directly or influenced by the Roman copying 
first, Armenians had their gods of love and charity and war and 
prosperity and wisdom, down the chain of desiderata in their deities.

But somehow, their King adopted Christianity as its official religion
in 301 AD. For this to occur, the proselytizing Parthean, Gregory the
Illuminator, had to be kept alive in a dungeon for many years (left 
there to die). Who fed him?  Who looked after him? How did he survive
after years of torture and a chained existence underground in a cave?

The famous fifth century historian Agathangelos has produced one 
answer. Vigen Chaldranian now gives us another based on his reading 
of history, sociology and the devilish smile of a virile artist at 
the peak of his game.

Who were these pagans? What were they about? How is Christianity 
really different from a ritualistic, process point of view? How can 
Kings and their sisters and consorts have so much say on what 
happened to an entire nation throughout history? How are we different
today than they were 1700 plus years ago? How are we the same? Could 
we imagine some mental time travel? Some revelation, hallucination, 
disturbance, car accident and subsequent amnesia, leading to ancient 
Greek lovers and Pagan gods as husbands assembling a set of well 
placed clues so that they can perhaps trace out a path to some truth?

Can this be done with conviction and a sure hand?

What is this story to be? On one level, it must be a series of well 
separated crises and revolts. A set of self similar howls by the 
Priestess/car accident victim character, played to such humble and 
dedicated perfection by  Rouzan Vit Mesropyan, punctuating fate, 
modulating destiny and tempting the gods, literally and figuratively,
despite herself. Rigidity of spirit, closed minded dicta, elaborate 
and ornate rituals above all else, fear, foreboding, harsh punishment
and ruthless nature and ruthless man make up the world of the Pagans.

Now Christianity comes on. Is it spreading because of its message? 
What is its appeal with the common man? Why are some drawn to its 
principles and others remain indifferent? Why did the nobility resist
it? (how could they not, when we were all said to be equal in the 
eyes of the lord!) These questions are not answered directly in Vigen
Chaldranian's film, the Priestess. Instead, we focus exclusively on 
her, the young shaved head young sacrifice. A woman dedicated to 
Mihr, a powerful god, to be his wife (probably serviced in the 
catacombs by the senior priests) and to channel his strength through 
her clairvoyance. She is simultaneously a helpless victim and highly 
privileged, imprisoned and yet powerful. And thus we have a magic 
potion already.

Vigen Chaldranian traces a series of events in her life, besides her 
duties to  stone statue husband and aging father, with lust and 
despair, loss and contempt that lead her aimlessly at first, but with
great consequence, eventually, to feed St. Gregory bread she herself 
bakes while the latter is in his dungeon at Khor Virab, and 
suggesting to the King's sister that it is this man who can save the 
King in his time of medical crisis. And indeed when Gregory (after 
being released from prison) prays for Drtad the great, our mythology 
asserts, the latter is cured and he is convinced Christianity is the 
path to enlightenment, or at the very least, a longer life on this 
planet. And Armenia becomes Christian. This woman gets promoted to 
having played pivotal roles in the lives of Garni worshipers and 
later, Gregory the illuminator followers, the Christians. Cherchez la
femme! indeed millennia before Alexander Dumas uttered it in print in
1854.

The Priestess is a radical take on the events that gave rise to this 
phase transition in a people who embraced Christianity as the 
official religion of the kingdom. The Priestess may have been a 
servant to this or that god, but this movie is about her flowering as
a person, as a woman and as a self conscious, gifted soul. And then 
we have the amnesiac and her remembrances, her search for harmony and
her destiny to cross paths with hard scientific and technological 
doctrines that can put a stop to any imagination without remorse. As 
the amnesiac is forced to recover her memory, the scholar who has 
been recording the retelling (making up) of this ancient tale loses 
his muse. This scholar is played by Vigen Chaldranian himself, making
it even more ironical, as he thus makes a movie which describes his 
scholar character losing his muse, which brings his movie to an end 
just as it slams the door on the scholar. So we have a clean 
beginning and a clean end. The scholar walks by the soon to be 
amnesiac's car accident at the start, is called in to help make sense
of her stories, she is cured by modern medical technology 
intervening,  and he is left with nothing but this story to tell.

But the way the story is told, events unfold and crisscross hopping 
effortlessly over 1700 years, is where the magic truly lies in this 
movie. How can Kings even begin to understand what a religion of the 
people, for the people, a populist religion, has to offer? How can 
the act of accepting it (which had political reasons behind it, 
distinguishing themselves from the Persian Empire, stemming the tide 
of assimilation) be the official story even the church tells? When we
see King Drtad and his entourage being baptized by St. Gregory, at 
the end, they are still dressed and behave with pomp and 
circumstance. Where is the humility of man before God? Where is piety
and inner strength? It seems very much the same thing as the favor 
exchanges and sacrifices that define pagan transactional religions. 
So what has changed? Besides, how has the priestess changed? In this 
story, she went from being Mihr's clairvoyant servant to St. 
Gregory's savior. She went from a lone daughter of a simple farmer to
the angelic messenger who instructed the king's sister (who used to 
come to her in her former clairvoyant capacity) to release St. 
Gregory so that he could cure the king. She loved a Greek consort to 
the King's sister who was killed by the priests because of his 
trespass into the life of the wife of a god. She revolted, she was 
imprisoned, she had visions of the rise of Christianity, she was 
released to be spared by the King's sister, she survived the burning 
down of her stone house in which she was trapped by an angry and 
vengeful Mihr worshipping mob, and after all that found St. Gregory 
in a dungeon far, far away and nourished him literally. This is not 
much of a stretch from a tall order religious story point of view. 
This is par for the course, of course, when theology dictates the norms.

But where are true Christian motivations here? Where are the true 
convictions?  There are miracles and premonitions, magic and 
ephemeral powers, but Jesus and God are not the center of attention. 
Change, crises, fear of the gods, shamans, chants, trances, this is 
the world of the ancient past we see reproduced. The combination and 
juxtaposition with the hospital scenes are beautifully used to let 
the audience ask itself what religion really is or should be. Who is 
it for? How does it survive? What part magic, what part solace, what 
part philosophically compelling vision, what part rituals and 
traditions of self-perpetuating lore? Where is the essence and how 
can it touch the human soul with all this external baggage of famine 
and pestilence, fear and fright, fragility and lust for power, for 
permanence, for pride?

In this movie, the priestess herself symbolizes the Armenian. Seldom 
in charge of her own destiny, yet playing a monumental role in the 
evolution of the story around her. She is a victim yet somehow 
survives and thrives. She is a believer in one god and then another, 
one tradition and soon another, which she will influence in more ways
than one. She adapts and she does not bow her head and live in fear. 
She is a woman of action and she is truly gifted. She is not consumed
by ambition and high-minded goals. History keeps coming to her and 
forcing her to confront and sometimes resolve its crises. She does so
well for herself because she is head strong and firm.  History does 
not break Armenians (but does she ever try!). Crises come and go and 
our ancient monuments still stand. Garni is still there in its full 
pagan glory as is Etchmiadzin, the church St. Gregory built. There 
are catacombs and caverns of history in every Armenian's mind, with 
echos and ancient chants that reverberate in our consciousness with 
each step we take into the light of today's world, with each speeding
car or oil deal that can menace our existence once more. A rich 
heritage should beget riches by its own rights. Vigen Chaldranian 
shows us one shining example of that process in the Priestess with 
wit and wisdom, conviction and a contortionist's magic, putting the 
pagan into Christianity and Christianity's spirit in the pagan. Man 
is just a man, for all that, as Robert Frost has said, finds color 
and sound symphonies, rocks and barren mountainous backgrounds, 
castles and temples, bolstering the long hard road ahead as our 
nation tries to find its right place in the twenty first century with
its traditions and transcendent past as a guiding light.


--
Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on the web by clicking on his personal web pages at:
http://208.177.152.139/

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