The Last Troubadour is a cinematic meditation on the loss of cultural liberty, national independence, and the freedom of speech itself, viewed through the prism of Yeghishe Charents and specifically his poem titled “Chivalric Rhapsody”.
One of the greatest Armenian poets of the 20th century, Charents was renowned as an avant-garde author and a public activist beloved by the Armenian masses. He was, for these very reasons, considered too subversive by the Soviet regime. During the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, he was arrested and subsequently died in prison, in 1937.
The Last Troubadour opens in the prison cell of Charents at the KGB’s Yerevan headquarters on Pushkin Street, in the last year of the poet’s life. Despite his physical and emotional devastation, Charents still manages to defy his fate and continues to write. His filthy, rat-infested cell is strewn with pages of newly-written poetry, as we glimpse morsels of one his most celebrated works, My Sweet Armenia (Yes Im Anush Hayastani).
However, given Charents’ fierce sense of freedom and the gross injustice of his incarceration, his anger and frustration culminate in an emotional explosion, when he lashes out against his keepers.
Minutes later, in comes a ruthless KGB officer who proceeds to savage Charents, as punishment for his outburst. The scene is witnessed by a young guard standing right outside the cell. A great admirer of Charents and an aficionado of his work, the guard is full of hatred as he watches the officer mercilessly beat the helpless poet.
As the scene intensifies, the officer’s punches gradually fade into the sounds of a horse’s gallop, until, finally, the assaulter’s beatings and curses as well as the guard’s mute pain transform completely into the first scene of Charents’ poem, Chivalric Rhapsody. The transition occurs in the form of a sequence of flashbacks.
The narrative now turns entirely to the titular knight of Chivalric Rhapsody. A crusader who has just returned from a mission in Jerusalem, the knight, full of love and longing, goes to the castle where his queen lives, to pay his respects and express his loyalty and chivalric adoration. But instead of being welcomed by his great love, the knight is met by the odious, 93-year-old king, who is joined by a couple of young, gorgeous, lascivious concubines.
As the king and his harlots retire to another room, the knight is left in the reception hall, where he spends a troubled and sleepless night. By morning, he is overcome with fury as he feels the full weight of the loathsomeness of the situation: the castle (a metaphor for Armenia) is helmed not by his beloved queen but rather a doddering, spiritually bankrupt old man (a metaphor for communism and the Soviet regime), who freely gets his way through the help of dotting concubines (metaphors for local apparatchiks).
The knight’s sentiments are further inflamed the day after, when he becomes secret witness to a salacious sexual encounter involving the king and the two harlots. Unable to contain his rage, the knight lunges at the monarch and murders him, and is subsequently assaulted by the outraged girls.
Now a fugitive and an outcast, the knight goes on to spend the rest of his days as a troubadour of glories past.
As the poem’s narrative sequence draws to a close, the scene reverts to Charents’ prison cell, where the Cheka officer continues to beat the helpless poet. It is at this point that the young guard can no longer tolerate the savagery. He leaps inside the cell, knocks down the officer with the butt of his revolver, has Charents put on the clothes of the officer, and proceeds to whisk him out of prison.
Once outside the prison compound, Charents, in an expression of fatherly affection, thanks his rescuer and runs off into the city, then takes off the Cheka cap and throws it high into the air. But as the cap falls down to the ground, the scene once again reverts to the prison cell. The rescue sequence has been no more than a fantasy dreamt up by the guard. Instead, the officer continues to brutalize Charents.
In the last scene of the film, there’s a final glimpse of the young guard and his pained eyes.
The film ends with the last stanza of Chivalric Rhapsody, before the frame unexpectedly fades into black.