The film is far from the current trend of strong character- and story-driven docs, which is a relief. It embraces many characters whose lives are interwoven, and it is structured in separate scenes that refer to each other – sometimes through the action and sometimes metaphorically. It is undramatic but contains all the drama of life: death, love, friendship, loss and faith.The opening text states that Armenia has been struck by an earthquake and genocide, and in 1991 when it became independent, one million people left the country. What we see is what is left, and it is not a very dynamic country but comprises people who have chosen the ’difficult happiness’ of each other’s company.
The setting is the Armenian town of Gyumri that was struck by an earthquake in 1988, killing 25,000 people. The two main characters are Garnik, a 70 year old gravedigger, and Waruzh, a thirteen-year-old who has dropped out of school and lives with his grandmother. Those two odd people have a special friendship. Though Garnik often tells Waruzh to get lost when he hangs around the cemetery, Garnik is deeply devoted to the boy, and in the final scene the ultimate act of this devotion is completed when he becomes Waruzh’s godfather when Waruzh finally gets baptized.
There is a ‘plot’ in the film: the preparation and celebration of Garnik’s seventieth birthday. This provides space in which to depict him through a number of scenes like Garnik at the barber, one of Garnik’s friends buying him a birthday present, Waruzh and Garnik discussing age, etc. Those scenes are intercut with other scenes that ’show life’: people shopping at the market, a small carousel arrives in the town, boys swimming in the cloverleaf shaped swimming pool, daily work at the cemetery. Each image in this film is carefully composed, multi-layered and delightful to watch – frescoes of Armenian life.
Garnik is just one destiny, forced to work as a gravedigger, though he wanted to be a teacher. As one of his friends says at one point, “What good is this independence? Nobody can make anything out of it!” Still marked by the earthquake, death is very present in the film as it largely revolves around the cemetery, yet so it is in life. This is represented in particular by Garnik’s birthday party that takes place at the stonemason’s workshop. A celebration with food and wine among the tombstones.
Frescoes is a celebration of film art and the diversity of expression available to the documentary.