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PALMS, Russia, 1993
Dir: Artur Aristakisyan 

Palms is of course a film about people living on the margins of society, or of 'the system', in a derelict town (Kishinev) in post-Soviet Moldavia. But it is also a film about Christianity - about what Christianity is, or what it ought to be. As such it seems to me to follow on, in quite a remarkable way, from Tarkovsky's late films, especially Nostalghia, but also to some extent, The Sacrifice.
Nostalghia turns principally on the relationship between two men - a disorientated Russian poet living in exile in Italy and a man who, in pursuit if his own idea of what it is to be a Christian, is living in poverty in a state of total opposition to the society around him. He is regarded as a madman and his family have been forcibly removed from him after he locked them up to protect them from the contagion of the world. He organises a demonstration with a group of misfits which involves a long speech denouncing society and ends in suicide. The poet is increasingly drawn to him and, apparently, to his view of the world, and the film ends with him determinedly fulfilling an apparently absurd task the visionary has assigned to him. We have not experienced the film as it should be experienced if we do not ourselves feel the fulfilment of this task to be a matter of the greatest importance.
Similarly, in The Sacrifice, a man destroys his home and all his worldly goods in order to avert, or to thank God for withholding, a nuclear holocaust. He is hauled off to a mental home, leaving his deaf mute son with the task of watering a withered tree in the hopes that it will break into leaf.
The son in The Sacrifice and the daughter in Stalker ('Monkey' - similarly disabled but possessed of remarkable powers) represent Tarkovsky's hope for the future. Is Aristakisyan, who was very young when he made the film, a fulfilment of those hopes?
Palms is a series of sketches of a group of mentally and physically damaged people living together in great poverty in a sort of village which is steadily being demolished. Aristakisyan is recording their lives before this place is destroyed completely and its inhabitants distributed round the various institutions some of them have been trying all their lives to escape. The film shows real people going about their daily lives, apparently quite oblivious or indifferent to the camera (though one old lady is obviously annoyed by it). In the interview that comes with the DVD Aristakisyan assures us that the stories that are told are true, or at least have truly been told by the people themselves.
These stories are given in the form of a monologue in which a man is addressing his unborn - and probably soon to be aborted - son. The script is written and spoken by Aristakisyan himself and I think I have read somewhere that he went through a similar trauma himself - a son who was aborted against his will. But I still don't think we can simply assume that this is Aristakisyan addressing his own son. In the interview he talks about a man who used to walk around Kishinev apparently talking to himself. If you got close enough to him to hear what he was saying, however, you heard that he was talking to his unborn, in the event aborted, son. The monologue in Palms can be taken to be Aristakisyan's notion of what this man might have been saying. They are extraordinary thoughts and Aristakisyan clearly sees their value, but that is not quite the same thing as saying they are his own firm convictions, any more than we can say the thoughts of the central characters in Nostalghia or The Sacrifice are Tarkovsky's own firm convictions.
The narrator telling his son how he should live says: 'You and I need the same thing. We need salvation.' And he goes on: 'The first way to reach salvation is to go mad.' And this is illustrated by film of an old woman who, after having been abandoned by her fiancé, has spent forty years lying on the ground waiting for Jesus Christ.
There is also a young man living in a hole in the ground. He is fed by the old people in the village. He never leaves his hole except on Sundays, because he is afraid he will be seized and brought back to the mental hospital which he escaped after having a vision of a naked boy who told him how he should live. He should stay with the people in the poor quarter and watch, and never speak until people have lost their power of speech through shame and fear. Then he can speak.
He sees a pretty girl and is told 'even her body is not comparable to the body of your silence.' Later the father/narrator tells his son to preserve his virginity. And that, after a while, he will begin to experience his virginity as a new body, a distinct, infinitely loveable person (I understand that this is a theme developed in his second film, which I haven't seen - A Place on Earth).
The film begins with an extract from an old Hollywood movie showing the persecution of Christians under Nero. It is accompanied by the 'Dies Irae' from Verdi's Requiem, which recurs through the film (a device - repetition of a poor quality recording of a well known piece of classical music - that is very typical of Tarkovsky). The obvious suggestion is that there is a parallel between these people whose way of life is being destroyed and the early Christians, and anyone who is familiar with the Christian ascetic tradition, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, will quickly see parallels with the monks, hermits, fools for Christ, who lie on one side throughout their lives without ever turning over, who live in a hole in the ground, never speak, patiently endure the scorn and indifference of the people around them, who await the coming of the Kingdom of God. We are urged to have compassion on our wife and on our children because they, like us, are alone. When a person realises he is alone, we are told, then Jesus appears before him, because 'Jesus was also utterly alone in the world.' We are reminded that Jesus called His disciples out from the system where they had quite comfortable jobs - fishermen and the like - to a life of destitution. Although there is great compassion in the film, the predominant mood is one of admiration, even of envy. How can we not feel admiration for the old man who collects clothes of people who have died in the psychiatric institutions and who speaks to them believing that through these clothes he is speaking to people in Heaven. Who has taken on an 'apprentice', a pregnant woman he found lying abandoned on the road. He subsequently loses his legs and the 'apprentice' carries him about on her back. Is that not a love story that is worth a thousand Hollywood romances?
The film ends with the evocation of a graveyard and a repeated phrase: 'This is my life.' The 'chapter' is called 'The Parliament of Birds.' One of the people celebrated in the film is an old man who lives surrounded by birds (I was reminded of the Lithuanian poet Oskar Milosz) but in this case the only bird we see is a dead crow sprawled on a gravestone. Again we might be reminded of the Christian tradition of 'death to the world'. The 'great habit' of Orthodox monks who have taken irrevocable vows bears a skull and cross bones and there is an American Orthodox website, probably aimed at people of a Gothic disposition, called 'Death to the World.' This does not mean wanting the world to die, it means being dead to the world. 'The Parliament of Birds' is the title of a beautiful Muslim poem in which a host of birds set off to find their King, the 'Simorg', but only a bedraggled handful finally make it. I don't know to what extent if any the film relates to the poem, but the community of gravestones leaning lovingly together recalls the earlier emphasis on individual solitude and the rejection of the idea that we are social beings. Of course, we are social beings but what the film is asserting above all else is that we have an essential core which is other than social and ultimately of much greater importance. It is eternal, a self subsisting entity, a 'hypostasis', to use a term used in Christian theology. And it can be seen in its purity in those who are outside the social interactions of 'the system', in those who, for whatever reason, including mental derangement, cannot connect with the system and of course in the aborted foetus (the narrator tells his probably soon to be aborted son that nothing can alter the fact of his having existed).
In an interview with The Independent given in 1998 Aristakisyan said 'I don't like the dogmas described in old books.' But he continues: 'These dogmas were originally expressions of first-hand experiences by the holy fathers. Instead of reading about it, you should live the idea of their lives.'
'The system' is obviously a very wide and vague concept but I do not think it would be too reductionist to relate it in the first instance to the Soviet system, which was still all-pervasive when Aristakisyan was a child. Aristakisyan's narrator describes it in terms that make it seem quite recent. He says that at one point it needed to kill thousands of people but is now able to dispense with that need and is even building churches - a new development. For this narrator, the fall of the Soviet Union is an extension or evolution of the system, not the end of it. The system essentially denies the humanity of the people we see in the film because it teaches that we are all pure products, or by-products, of our social and biological interactions, that we have no real individual existence, we are all part of the 'dialectical' functioning of a single great 'biomass'. In other words (and these are my words, they are not used in  the film) we are not created individually by God. If we don't interact within the biomass we are not human. That is the system - the idea of what it is to be human - the film rejects. It is of course wider than the Soviet system, but the Soviet system was a concentrated (and hence visible, identifiable) expression of it. It is difficult to imagine a film like this or Tarkovsky's Nostalghia being made outside the remarkable conjuncture that has occurred in our time between Orthodox asceticism and Soviet dialectical materialism. But the problem it poses - a 'humanism' that treats humanity as part of an essentially inhuman and impersonal process of evolution - is universal.
At one point Aristakisyan's narrator expresses regret that it took him so long to learn that 'everything is divine in nature.' I for one can only marvel that Aristakisyan himself seems to have learned it so young.