Film Essays & Articles >> Priestess Comes and Goes Speaking of Agathangelos
Priestess Comes and Goes Speaking of Agathangelos
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 amnesiacís 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
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No reproduction of this text is permitted. Performance rights must be secured for any performance.