The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

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.”

Parajanov endeavours to look inside Sayat-Nova’s creative mind with this image of lyres spin in the air, as if enchanted by some musical spell.
Layers upon layers of opaque storytelling, especially with the use of Sofiko Chiaureli playing multiple roles of women in Sayat-Nova’s life.

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.

Full-throttle commitment to surreal imagery to create tableaux inspired by painters like Dali.

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.

Striking compositions set back in static wide shots, watching the pages of these books flutter in the breeze atop a roof, inspiring a love of poetry in the young musician’s mind.

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.”

The death of Holy Father Lazarus marks a period of mourning for Sayat-Nova, filling this strange stone church with sheep around the dead body.

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.

Shedding the grief in the removal of the black robes to reveal white garments underneath.

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.

Drenched in the juice of pomegranates, turning these symbols of good fortune into blood.
A young Sayat-Nova hangs in the air holding angel wings as he passes on into the afterlife – masterfully composed imagery with the low angle and golden colours.

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.

Escorted away by angels from one life into the next – heavily symbolic imagery from start to finish.
An imprint of black and white robes on the ground as Sayat-Nova passes away, bringing this brilliantly mystifying piece of surrealist cinema to a close.

The Color of Pomegranates is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

Eric Rohmer | 1hr 51min

Jean-Louis’ night at Maud’s is a test of faith brought about by chance. Where his newest love interest, Françoise, is a blonde Christian who lives traditionally, Maud is a dark-haired, secular, modern woman, playfully pushing his rigid boundaries. It is important to Eric Rohmer’s philosophical drama that she is not some antagonistic seductress though, looking to ruin or corrupt his perfect moral standard. After all, his sympathies with his God-fearing protagonist aren’t so clear-cut either, with Jean-Louis being a man struggling to reconcile his conscious actions with his faith. It is rather Maud’s transgressive incitement which motivates him to seriously consider his own life as it pertains to his values, as well as the erratic universe which pushes his fate in whatever fickle directions it may choose.

Mirrors in Rohmer’s mise-en-scène as several paths collide by pure chance.

With the character of Vidal, a Marxist university lecturer more aligned with Maud’s worldly sensibilities than those of his theological friend, Rohmer rounds out this four-person chamber drama. It is a dense script of mathematical, social, and ethical quandaries which drives My Night at Maud’s, and not one that affords its audience any time to lag behind. Lengthy conversations take place inside apartments and cafes, as Rohmer stages different combinations of character interactions without ever bringing them all together in one location. Many of these discussions are not planned, but rather emerge organically from crossings of unlikely paths, thus immediately setting the stage for an in-depth debate over the mechanics of probability.

“Our ordinary paths never cross. Therefore, the point of intersection must be outside those ordinary paths. I’ve dabbling in mathematics in my spare time. It would be fun to calculate our chances of meeting in a two-month period.”

From there, conversations regarding Pascal’s wager open up, considering the risk that human’s take with their lives in deciding whether or not to believe that God exists. It is a gamble that both Jean-Louis and Vidal play safely, though within different contexts. The latter, being an academic, chooses to believe that history holds inherent meaning, as it is only then that his life’s work can hold value. For Jean-Louis though, moral choice is an imperative he wishes to keep putting off, and it is that “half-heartedness” which Maud skewers him for.

Excellent blocking in Maud’s small apartment – she remains confidently rooted in one position while the others move around her.

Such heavy philosophical dialogue rarely hampers Rohmer’s cinematic staging of this drama, particularly in Jean-Louis’ pivotal conversation with Maud that sees him uncomfortably move around her apartment, while she lies still in bed. As he oscillates back and forth in this scene, the temptation becomes real, eventually leading to his decision to sleep next to Maud – though categorically not sleep with her. Later, Rohmer blocks Françoise in a similar position and sets up a counterpoint between both characters, though one that strikes a different note when she offers him a different room.

Symmetry in Rohmer’s compositions, expressing the order and neatness of his characters’ mathematical and philosophical fascinations.
A stunner of a frame in the very first scene, and Rohmer returns to similar compositions a few times in isolating Jean-Louis behind glass windows and doors.

The clean order of Rohmer’s symmetrical compositions is consistent with the mathematical precision of the screenplay, but in his framing of characters behind glass windows and doors he also creates a cold distancing effect. In this environment where roads are slippery with ice and sidewalks are dusted with snow, such camerawork makes for a fitting choice, as if silently encouraging these characters to break down barriers and find warmth with each other amid the winter weather. This frigidity is also somewhat offset by the festive lights and decorations that smatter scenes with religious undertones, grounding these philosophical discussions in the Christmas season where Christians congregate in churches and meditate on their faith. With this in mind, Rohmer sets in motion the first tangential crossing of paths between Jean-Louis and Françoise at a mass, as he eyes her profile from across the congregation.

Snowy landscapes and festive decorations. Rohmer very purposefully timed this shoot to align with Christmas, and it is important for both the cold atmosphere and spiritual meditations.

It isn’t long after this that he becomes convinced he will one day marry her. When Maud comes in, she is not simply drawn up as a seductive obstacle to this goal manifesting, but Rohmer rather uses her openness to expose Jean-Louis’ hypocrisy. He is a man concerned with his own respectability, and is willing to forget about his own history that carries contradictions with his faith. So too does Françoise come to a similar conclusion, asking that neither of them speak of their pasts again when their shameful misbehaviours surface.

Confessions atop a mountain, overlooking this tremendous view of the city in the midst of winter.

Perhaps though it is this course of action which grants the greatest happiness, as we see Jean-Louis and his now-wife, Françoise, run into Maud five years later – by chance of course, the same way almost every other meeting in the film has taken place. At the moment that Jean-Louis realises that Françoise was in fact the woman who slept with Maud’s husband and thus set in motion their divorce, he once again chooses to bury the past in favour of a blissful marriage.

It is telling that Rohmer chooses to stage this scene against a sunny beach rather than the snowy urban landscapes that have dominated the rest of the film, revealing a fresh warmth in Jean-Louis’ life that has failed to manifest up until now. In true philosophical fashion, My Night at Maud’s isn’t ready to deliver firm answers to its academic quandaries, and yet in this narrative built on a series of formal happenstances Rohmer also crafts an absorbing examination of fate, free will, and history as they fall under theological and secular perspectives.

An extreme shift in setting for the last scene, moving from the dead of winter to a summery beach.

My Night at Maud’s is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Kes (1969)

Ken Loach | 1hr 52min

There is a quiet, simple dichotomy at the heart of Kes to which the complexities of life in its 1960s Yorkshire working-class community are boiled down. Ken Loach approaches this not with the intent to distort reality, but rather to filter it through a singular perspective – for fifteen-year-old Billy Casper, every force in his life is on one side of a tug-o-war between subjugation and freedom. Sometimes people surprise him and reveal nuances he doesn’t expect, but those instances aren’t so common as to majorly impact his worldview. For the most part, his teachers, employment officers, and family are boxing him into rigid structures he doesn’t quite fit. In his young falcon, Kes, he doesn’t just find a genuine passion. He finds a set of values he can aspire to.

“Hawks can’t be tamed. They’re manned. It’s wild and it’s fierce and it’s not bothered about anybody.”

Using children as tragic representations of innocence in unjust societies has been at the core of neorealism since the Italians took to it in the 40s, but with the additional symbol of Kes as a being of pure, fearless independence, Loach sets up magnificent stakes to Billy’s emotional arc. As he stands on the precipice of adulthood, being forced to consider manual labour and office jobs he has no interest in, we recognise the immense fragility of his innocence, and the significance of Kes in preserving that.

Wide open fields play host to this bonding between a boy and his animal companion, a very different look to the dirtied school yards and buildings.

The time we spend in open fields with the only sign of civilisation being the town shoved far in the background are the most freeing in the film. The image of Kes flying through the sky without confines makes for a striking contrast to the constant suggestions that Billy go into coal mining after school, submerging himself beneath the ground in confined spaces, though these offerings of escapism are only ever fleeting. Loach is at his strongest when depicting the gritty detail of this blue-collar South Yorkshire town, letting its smokestacks and industrial structures tower over Billy in some of the film’s strongest compositions, while he lingers in the foreground trying to find peace among secluded bushes and trees. The impoverished but narrow-minded community that fill in this harsh, rundown setting are just as vivid in their authenticity, the thick brogue of these mostly non-professional actors rendering some lines almost incomprehensible.

The industrial mining structures looming in backgrounds – a raw sense of setting in superb compositions.

Within the rigorous education system of 1960s England, Loach surrounds Billy with a staff of teachers as regressively strict as they are sadistic, furiously wondering why their disciplinary tactics are not motivating the students to succeed. Child actor David Bradley is a consistently strong force all through Kes, but it is especially in these interactions where we see the struggle of a boy disillusioned by the path they are trying to set him on. When adults lecture and reprimand him, there is a visible emotional detachment on his face, and when he is forced to speak, he can’t bring himself to make eye contact. He is not looking to cause trouble, but he is ready to defend himself against accusations of laziness, and like any other teenage boy he is easily distracted, climbing goal posts during P.E. and daydreaming in the middle of class.

The students around him also assert their independence in small, rebellious acts, selling cigarettes between themselves even as the headmaster rails against their misbehaviour and complains about their generation. For the P.E. teacher, disobedience is simply an excuse to enact brutal and degrading punishments on kids who make easy targets, turning on the cold water while Billy is in the shower after class and refusing to let him out.

Loach’s visual style doesn’t often hit you with jaw-dropping compositions, but it is minimalistic and practical – authenticity in the streaks and poor maintenance of worn-down buildings.

In the school’s English teacher though, there seems to be a rare glimpse of hope that Billy might just be understood by someone else the way he understands Kes. Mr Farthing is not a character we expect such genuine compassion from, and yet as he makes an effort outside of school hours to visit his student and learn about his interests, we also begin to see a brighter future for Billy. But such optimism is not destined to last long in this stifling environment. Loach is dedicated to cinematic realism, but he also recognises the power that his symbols hold, and in bringing the two together, the cruel unpredictability of life ultimately destroys any faith we place in the latter. In watching this boy’s youthful idealism seep away with each harsh blow, Kes becomes a heartbreakingly bitter drama, raw with the pain of realising that there is no great liberty in becoming an adult – just another few decades of soul-sucking, arbitrary social structures.

Kes is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.