Palms opens with footage of a silent film set during the Roman era. The ensuing images of women and children being torn to death by lions as a packed auditorium cheers establishes the notion of man's savagery from the outset. What follows is an elliptical jump to 1990 - but, in a disconcerting sign of things to come, the film stock retains the same grainy texture that defined the preceding century-old excerpts. In essence, Aristakisyan is telling us that nothing has changed, and so begins his despondent rumination on the state (and fate) of contemporary 'humanity'.
If one judges a society by the condition of its poor, then what the director offers here is an overwhelmingly damning indictment of the world in its entirety because, as far as this film is concerned, little exists outside of the impoverished misfits that populate its impaired milieu. Aristakisyan doesn't seek to place his mentally and physically disabled 'ensemble' into the constraints of conventional narrative, nor does he maintain any pretenses about the creation of a non-fictional work (his narration provides the characters with backstories, often used for dramatic purpose) - so, what the Hell is he doing?! Palms is perhaps most notably a portrait of the marginalized, that smothers its audience with harrowing images which they'd prefer to ignore. It's a film that shatters our utopian fantasies and forces an uncomfortable confrontation with individuals that are repressed on a daily basis. Therefore, one could argue that it's a social commentary, and the remnants of Communist relics visible during the film imply an engagement with the Moldovan national question as well. Moreover, Aristakisyan's narration repeatedly returns to the idea of a powerful, oppressive and undefined "system" that's failed its citizens. This isn't a simple critique, it's a browbeating assault that infuriates the viewer with a muddled ideology consisting primarily of anarchic variations on the idea of extrication from the "system" as the sole method of living.
That ideology is muddled with intent, however. Palms is a film that defies the shackles of reductive labelling, and accordingly it functions on a multitude of levels. Aside from scrutinizing the social then, Aristakisyan also penetrates the personal. Thus, through his narration (which, it should be noted, is the only sound to be heard in the film, besides the occasional intrusion of a Verdi piece) he assumes the role of a potential parent talking to his unborn child. This lends the film an occasional tenderness that's doubly refreshing given the visual context, as when he states: "I want to see so badly how you first look at me." We can deduce that it's tenderness which motivates his extended monologue as well, an attempt by a father to assuredly point the way for the next generation. Of course, this father is a product of the "system" that permeates the film, and his evident mental trauma ("I can't find my place in life") not only links personal to (socio-)political but also parlays itself into his aforementioned 'guidance'. The majority of the dialogue is thereby rendered as little more than paranoid rambling that reflects his socially-induced pessimism. He advocates a life of destitution for his child, arguing that the on-screen characters possess a liberation that he sorely lacks. At one point he draws a link between poverty and virginity that's confounding in its connotations. How regressive must the "system" in question be if it can provoke a confessional that bequeaths all too visible hardship unto the future?
As if these questions weren't daunting enough, Aristakisyan introduces a further dimension to proceedings that elevates his film into the dizzying realm of the spiritual. From its opening intertitle (which details the outlawing of Christians in Rome), Palms is interpolated by a biblical tapestry that explicitly manifests itself on a regular basis. The initial ellipsis outlines the influence of religion upon the present, and the compression of time draws attention to the previously-noted film stock whose observational utilization invites a comparison with the early works of the Lumière brothers. The director is thereby manipulating his film's temporal qualities against the context of cinema history, and by evoking this particular parallel he effectively locates Palms at the beginning of cinematic time (the date of 1990 reinforces the timelessness of the portrayal.) Having noted the imprint of a Christian fabric here, one can't help but follow a certain trail of thought: before all else, there was God - the creator; Aristakisyan's narrator/father here is the creator of both life and the film itself. His confused assertions can thereby (arguably) acquire the status of God's own words, and thus Palms itself is recast as a filmic embodiment of the Bible filtered through the prism of the 20th-century experience. The provocative implications of this are obvious, although nonetheless startling in their audacity. Moreover, this transfiguration requires the unborn child to metamorphose into Jesus himself - except that [Spoiler:] in actuality he doesn't receive the chance, for Aristakisyan makes clear that this is a child destined for abortion. The world depicted in Palms is consequently deprived of even the slightest possibility of redemption, and it therefore seems thoroughly appropriate for the narrator-as-God to claim that: "The end of the world is our only salvation."
Aristakisyan's success with Palms is a stupendous one, but it inevitably makes for strenuous viewing. His decision to attack the audience with a neverending stream of monotonous despair is one that provides few of the gratifications that we're accustomed to, even in an arthouse. One cannot rejoice at the formal beauty of the work, nor can we easily appreciate its thematics: some of the ideas that his narrator puts forth run against the grain of the liberal, Western viewer that the film will most appeal to (anti-abortion, anti-contraception etc.), and we can't help but wonder what exactly prompted such a brutal diatribe against the social order - but to do so is to lose sight of the film's intent, literally. The narration is, of course, inextricably linked to his images and it's these poignant vignettes of life on the fringes that allow us to comprehend the source of Aristakisyan's grievances. To his credit, the director humanizes his handicapped characters in a way that's rarely seen here (basically, he doesn't patronize them) and his dedication to authentically recording their lives gifts the film with the power of realism. So, when Palms concludes [Spoiler:] in a cemetery, with the phrase "This is my life!" on repeat, its ramifications (both material and celestial) are unnervingly tangible. If even the smallest amount of that reaction is used to regain our awareness of the less fortunate, then perhaps Aristakisyan's goal will have been achieved and maybe, in his worldview, salvation will be possible after all.