Mayak is presented by MUBI in a restored print, re-constructed from two surviving 35mm prints. It’s a beautiful and extraordinary film – a stark beauty expressed in a brown/olive dominated palette, sometimes with a ‘bleached out’ look. (How much this is influenced by the effects of restoration is unclear, but I assume the film looks as close to its original appearance as possible.) It’s a début feature film by Mariya Saakyan, an Armenian woman who studied at the Moscow Film School, VGIK. Tragically, she died of cancer, aged only 37 in 2018 after completing a second feature. She was the mother of five children and this restoration is to be particularly welcomed because it enables more audiences to recognise her achievements during her brief career.
Lena (Anna Kapaleva) is a young Armenian woman who has been living in Moscow and now she is on a train heading back to Armenia. The date is not specified but it must be some time during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992-4. The war is represented by helicopter raids in the mountains and troop movements on the railway. The film is not about the fighting as such but more about the ‘home front’ of the people who have decided to stay while the young adults are fighting. The war did in fact see large numbers of displaced people. The causes of the war are not mentioned directly. Lena eventually returns to her village where she finds her aunt and her grandparents. It soon becomes clear that they must leave but her grandparents are reluctant.
This is a film in which landscape is almost a second central character. We are in the mountains of the South Caucasus where roads snake round the valley sides rising slowly in long sweeps to counter the steep inclines. Mist descends to the valley floor and the cinematography by Maksim Drozdov offers us long shot compositions which emphasise the sense of isolation. The railway is single track and the small station is at the centre of people’s attention even if there are seemingly no trains that stop to pick up passengers. There is very little narrative development as such but this shortish feature (78 minutes) is richly layered with different types of visual images as well as music and choral singing. The cinematography and sound are presented through different editing styles. The film feels more like an art film about memories than a melodrama about families, although that is what holds it together to some extent.
The consensus of commentators is that this a highly ‘poetic’ film and inevitably Tarkovsky is suggested as an influence, but it appears that the director has poets in her own family background and I’m also reminded that poetry features heavily in the films of Northern Iran which isn’t too far away across the mountains. In fact the film was shot, according to a Notebooks essay on MUBI, close to the border between Armenia and Georgia and scripted by a Georgian, Givi Shavgulidze who described events that took place during the Georgian-Abkhaz War of 1992-3. The village which features in the film is Madan, first built in the mountains around the site of a copper mine and featuring a significant Greek minority community. All these dislocations add to the sense that the film is about memories and especially the ways in which identity is felt by a wide range of peoples who experienced the break up of the Soviet empire in the 1990s.
Here is a quote from an interview with Maksim Drozdov:
I consider it important for the understanding of this film to note that for none of us was it a “film about war” at the very least for the reason that in the beginning of the ‘90s all of us were still kids and we could understand little about the events happening around us. The Lighthouse is a film about the childhood home, the reality around which has changed, has become unhomely, extrusive. And one seemingly needs to run from this uncozy reality, but it is so hard to leave your home behind. So many people in different parts of a big country that was at that time falling apart had to leave their homes and go into the unknown. (from https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/heavenly-authors-discussing-the-lighthouse-with-cinematographer-maksim-drozdov)
In the time it has taken me to watch the film, read about the background and write this posting over two or three weeks, war has again broken out in Nagorno-Karabakh the Armenian enclave within Azeri territory and the ostensible setting of this narrative. I’ve learned a great deal on this project and the film itself has been affecting for me. The Lighthouse (Mayak) is also available on a Second Run DVD (Region Free) and is highly recommended.