Sergei Parajanov | 1hr 19min
Besides its extreme avant-garde stylings and near non-existence of any visible narrative, it is tricky for foreigners to pick out what exactly made The Color of Pomegranates so controversial in 1969 that Soviet authorities sought to censor its depiction of 18th-century Armenian poet and troubadour, Sayat-Nova. One of the primary accusations made against it takes a very limited perspective of art’s purpose and potential – for political purposes, this mystifying film simply was not educational enough. This understatement would be somewhat amusing if the propagandistic principle driving it did not have such a destructive impact on Soviet artists of the era.
Sergei Parajanov had no desire to be a font of factual knowledge in making this film, and so while the forced removal of Sayat-Nova’s name technically detaches it from the actual historical figure, it also ironically digs it even deeper into its abstract emphasis of impressionism over exposition. It is not the details of the poet’s existence he seeks to render in moving pictures, but rather his inner life that gave birth to such delicate written and musical expressions. Dialogue is scarce here, though Parajanov is clearly following in the tradition of silent film with his use of intertitles, many of which are drawn directly from Sayat-Nova’s verses and are lined up with key points in his life. Lyres hypnotically spin in the air as if enchanted by some melodic allure when the young musician uncovers his deeply rooted passion, and his written words unite with it in lyrical harmony.
“From the colours and aromas of this world, my childhood made a poet’s lyre and offered it to me.”
Though it does follow a vaguely linear structure that progresses from childhood to death, The Color of Pomegranates is more vividly defined by its dazzling visual poetry, flowing between loosely connected images that are unlike anything other filmmakers had attempted before. The coarse textures and rigid staging directed towards the camera at times even make this feel as if it were born in its own isolated bubble divorced of cinematic influences, coming from a century that predates the invention of the artform. Instead, it is often paintings which feel more comparable to Parajanov’s style here, most distinctly that of Salvador Dali whose surreal artistry invites similarly symbolic interpretations through incongruous representations of reality.
In the film’s opening shot, three pomegranates weep their juices onto a white fabric, staining it with a red mark in the shape of Armenia as it existed in the 18th century. Even in the emblematic image of this fruit though, Parajanov is drawing on its status as a symbol of good fortune in the nation’s religious culture, patriotically asserting its sovereign identity. Such detailed understanding of these anthropological intricacies are not so essential to understanding The Color of Pomegranates on a purely emotive level though, as each tableaux of Sayat-Nova’s life and artistry is rich with reverent adoration for art on its most instinctive level. At one point in his childhood when a thunderstorm drenches the books of his family’s manor, the adults gather and press them under their feet, draining them of their liquid much like the bleeding pomegranates of the opening. As they are laid open on large roofs to dry out, Parajanov composes an evocative composition of great veneration, surrounding the young poet with open pages lightly flapping in the breeze like living creatures.
Sayat-Nova’s growth into adulthood is marked by all the usual milestones of a full life, understanding artistic beauty, falling in love, and encountering death, and yet this is about as closely as Parajanov identifies his story with any sense of logical order. Instead, The Color of Pomegranates sinks us into a deep reverie caught up in ceremonial rhythms driven more by the slow, deliberate gesturing of his actors, primitive pieces of folk music, and choral chanting than any editing or camera movement. Perhaps the only exception may be the prominent use of jump cuts to subtract and alter parts of specific compositions, jarringly bridging gaps in time. Unlike his previous film though, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, static shots are the dominant choice here, set back in wides to meditate in sacred rituals tightly bound to Sayat-Nova’s artistry. The death of Holy Father Lazarus marks a period of grief for the poet, who digs a grave for the Catholicos in a strange, stone church full of sheep, while Orthodox priests carry out liturgies accepting their anguish as a blessing from God.
“Brothers of mine in soul and blood, grief, inconsolable grief has been sent to us from heaven.”
Darkness seeps into Parajanov’s imagery as Sayat-Nova adopts the black garb worn by the holy men around him, some of whom are seen biting into pomegranates. Tapestries bearing religious icons similarly dominate this section of the film as the artist grows even more in touch with his spiritual beliefs. Eventually we emerge out the other side, and the dark robes are shed to reveal white garments underneath, like new identities being born from cocoons of sorrow.
The end of Sayat-Nova’s own life comes about in a similarly mystical manner, as the symbolic pomegranates are cut open for their juices to drench his white robes like blood. “Sing,” commands a man standing high up above him. “Sing,” he commands again, dictating the direction of his life. “Die,” he finally orders, and from a low angle we view Sayat-Nova’s younger self floating in the air, looking down at us holding a pair of cherub wings. As the man is escorted away by two small angels in one world, he lies down for the final time amid candles and flapping chickens in another, landing on a final note not of mourning, but of peaceful, spiritual acceptance.
Anyone unaware of Sayat-Nova before watching The Color of Pomegranates may not come out of it fully grasping his place in Armenian history, and yet there is still a new understanding of his delicate, romantic artistry born in its outlandish stylistic experiments. For all the censorship battles Parajanov fought throughout its production and distribution, it was far from the end of his troubles with Soviet authorities. Four years after the film’s release in 1969, he was arrested and imprisoned in a gulag under false charges that targeted his bisexuality. His friend and artistic inspiration, Andrei Tarkovsky, was anything but silent in his protests, leading an array of prominent figures in Hollywood and world cinema to oppose this great injustice. Although he would be released within a few years, it would take him almost two decades to re-join the industry, and as such The Color of Pomegranates looked to be the last feature film to emerge from this peculiar director for a long time. Even beyond its original context though, this wildly elusive piece of cinema still stands as an innovative, surreal tribute to Armenia’s rich history and culture, vibrantly independent of any modern political influence or narrative convention.
The Color of Pomegranates is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.