Floundering for some way to describe obtuse or complex art, critics often rely on the adjective “poetic”. It can come to mean nearly anything in this context and the word loses any descriptive power. In The Colour of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova), the late Soviet director, Sergei Parajanov, makes an earnest attempt to fuse poetry and film by seriously exploring the poetic potential of the cinema. This deliriously beautiful film is made up of autonomous, resonant images that – like lines of poetry –stay in the mind long after the film has run its course. The Colour of Pomegranates seems to resist or even defy explanation. With that in mind, I would like to simply present a few lenses through which the film can be viewed, rather than impose an interpretation that might reduce, confine, or minimise the dazzling experience of this lovely film.
A Georgian-born Armenian, Parajanov (1924-1989) was one of the most controversial directors of the Soviet era. He was jailed for nearly five years on suspicions of homosexuality, illegal trading in antiques, and incitement to suicide, among other vague charges. After making a few documentaries and features in a roughly Socialist Realist idiom, Parajanov came into his own style in 1964 when he made Tini zabutykh predkiv/Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a dream-like film that combines expressionistic camera techniques, ethnography, and the logic of folktales. The film was released to great international acclaim, and is credited with founding the new “pictorial school” of ’60s Soviet cinema. At home, however, the film was attacked by the authorities for what was interpreted as a prioritisation of aesthetics over ideology, and was subsequently banned. Chastened, Parajanov left the rigid confines of Moscow and Kiev for his ancestral home, Armenia, to make The Colour of Pomegranates in the same vein as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. But even there, he faced constant harassment by government officials, and was denied basic filmmaking equipment, lighting, and adequate film stock. Disgusted with the experience, he wrote to the director of the State Film Committee:
I was thirty-nine when a sad set of circumstances forced me to come to Erevan. I am now forty-two… It’s hot. Peaches are two rubles a kilo. I’m suffocating in schemes and poorly ventilated hotel rooms, keeping company with cockroaches. I strongly urge that Sayat-Nova be banned and that I be sent back to Kiev. I am willing to abandon the cinema. (1)
His words were prophetic. The controversy over The Colour of Pomegranates instigated his trial and imprisonment, and he would be forbidden from making films for the next 15 years.
The film at the heart of all of this controversy is a biography of the Armenian troubadour-poet Aruthin Sayadian (1712-1795), who was known as Sayat-Nova. Born in the capital of Georgia, Tiblisi, Sayat-Nova began his career as a wool-dyer in his family’s trade. Educated in literature by the Armenian Church, he composed hundreds of songs and poems and would rise to become a poet in the royal courts of Tiblisi and Telavi in Eastern Georgia. In his later life, after the death of his wife, Marmar, Sayat-Nova became a monk at the Haghpat monastery. He lived there until his death at the hands of the Persian army, when Agha Mohammed Khan sacked Armenia (2). His songs continue to be sung in the Caucasus today. While The Colour of Pomegranates avoids the typical formula for a biopic, all of these events are clearly depicted in a linear order.
Parajanov has described the film as a series of Persian miniatures (3). The camera remains fixed in place, as in early cinema, while the director’s mise en scène resembles a tableau-vivant, a mixture of theatre and painting. Rather than zooming or changing focal lengths, people and animals move closer and farther away from the camera, objects relating to each other in a two-dimensional manner. Each significant aspect of the poet’s life is thus represented in these highly stylised, synthetic scenes: Sayat-Nova’s work as a dyer; music lessons; and the burial of a Catholicos, an important Armenian Church father, for whom the poet wrote an elegy. Mirroring Sayat-Nova’s lyric style, Parajanov heightens the sensory details of the scenes: the sound of hot, wet, newly dyed wool hitting metal salvers, the squishy sound of grapes bursting underneath toes. Significant moments are repeated and replayed as in memory and verse, sometimes with slight variations to account for shifts in feeling and perspective. For example, the lace covering Marmar’s mouth in the marriage scene changes from the white of innocence to the red of passion and the blackness of death and loss. Red in the form of dye, pomegranate juice and blood appears throughout the film, bearing the weight of metaphoric meanings, from love to the martyrdom of the Armenian people.
One of the “miniatures” replays the young Sayat-Nova’s erotic awakening as he peers into a Turkish bath, where he glimpses nude male and female bodies. He sees a woman’s chest and imagines one breast covered with a conch shell. From that point on, Parajanov uses the shell to represent a breast, clearly visualising the metaphor. Similarly, in a quick tribute to Eisenstein’s intellectual approach to montage, Parajanov shows us the Catholicos buried with his staff, a symbol of his power – the casket is covered with the staff on top. In the following cut we see his tomb decorated with a stone carving of the staff. In a few short edits, the person and staff are joined. The man is transformed into myth through symbolic tribute and becomes a cult object of faith.
Parajanov’s style is punctuated by the blurring of the line between symbolic and ethnographic filmmaking. His love for the ethnic artefacts, costumes, and landscape of Armenia is obvious in every scene. Parajanov despised the state imposition of Socialist Realism for destroying the artistic potential of his entire generation of filmmakers. Nevertheless, its influence can be seen in the film’s commitment to the material reality of Armenian life. Even in his most carefully constructed, jewel-box-like scenes, sheep wander in and out of the frame. Characters also stare at the lens, breaking the traditional, illusionist spell of the cinema, betraying Parajanov’s playful sense of humour. Ultimately, The Colour of Pomegranates is a heady mixture of styles and ideas, both archaic and modernist. It is this iconoclastic director’s masterpiece and must be enjoyed with all of one’s senses.
- Galia Ackerman, “Introduction”, Sergei Paradjanov, Seven Visions, trans. Guy Bennett, Green Integer, Los Angeles, 1998.
- Charles Dowsett, Sayat’-Nova, An 18th-Century Troubadour: A Biographical And Literary Study, Peeters Publishers, Leuven, 1996.
- The director states this in the documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem (Ron Holloway, 1994) included as an “extra” on the Kino International DVD release (2001) of The Colour of Pomegranates.
The Colour of Pomegranates/Sayat Nova (1968 USSR 79 mins)
Prod Co: Armenfilm Studios Dir: Sergei Parajanov Scr: Sergei Parajanov, based on the poems by Sayat-Nova Phot: Suren Shakhbazyan Prod Des: Stepan Andranikyan Ed: Sergei Parajanov, M. Ponomarenko Mus: Tigran Mansuryan
Cast: Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Djaparidze