238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

AKA Sayat Nova

“Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein… cinema has not discovered anything revolutionarily new until The Color of Pomegranates, not counting the generally unaccepted language of the Andalusian Dog by Buñuel.”–Mikhail Vartanov

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sofiko Chiaureli, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori, M. Alekyan, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Japaridze

PLOT: The Color of Pomegranates is essentially impressionistic and plotless, although the tableaux roughly follow the chronology of the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova. We first see the poet as a child in a village, introduced to the images that will follow him throughout his life: the lute, the iconographic texts of the Armenian Apostolic Church, farm animals. As he grows, he marries, becomes a widower and then a priest, leaves his monastic calling to travel the countryside as a bard, and is finally killed by Persians.

Still from The Color of Pomegrenates (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sayat Nova (the name translates as “King of Song”) was an 18th century Armenian priest, poet and ashik (a wandering troubadour who played a “saz,” a Central Asian lute). Nova was killed by Iranian invaders for refusing to convert to Islam.
  • Sergei Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of his major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolves around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) deals with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) covers the mythology of his native Georgia. His final movie, Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • First titled Sayat Nova, Parajanov’s film was immediately banned by the Soviet censors, then five minutes of religious imagery were removed and the film was briefly released under the title The Color of Pomegranates. The missing footage was restored in 1992.
  • Parajanov’s difficulty with USSR censors stemmed both from his rejection of the official aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism and from concerns that his films would revive nationalist sentiments in formerly independent states (Ukraine and Armenia). Parajanov, who was bisexual, was jailed from 1973-1977 on what are widely considered fabricated charges of homosexual rape, and was not allowed to make another film until 1984.
  • Actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays at least five roles in the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Since actress Sofiko Chiaureli serves as Parajanov’s muse for this poetic odyssey, playing multiple roles (both male and female), it is only right that it is her face, reconfigured in dozens of guises, that we associate with the film. For our still, we selected her final appearance as the statuesque, granite-faced “Angel of Resurrection”—with a rooster perching on her shoulder.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Floating spinning lutes; Church of Sheep; shiny Mongol shoots a fresco

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all. Every carefully composed image in Pomegranates is coded to a meaning, but the key to interpreting them is missing. If you are a time-traveling Armenian from 1969 you will understand more of what is going on in Parajanov’s vast visual poem than the average viewer—but not a lot more. Don’t fight the movie, just allow yourself to drown in the mystery of its images.


Trailer for The Color of Pomegranates

COMMENTS: One of the earliest scenes in The Color of Pomegranates shows a young boy (the poet as a child, we presume) sitting on the roof of a monastery, surrounded by books. He leafs through one tome full of mysterious, iconographic illustrations. There are crude, stylized drawings of angels and saints, men submerged in pools of water, jesters carrying decorated balls, goats galloping in the sky, anointings, and other legendary images the boy cannot understand, but whose beauty and mystery absorbs him. Sergei Parajanov’s movie is just like that book, and we should strive to be like that boy—open and full of wonder. The series of scenes in Pomegranates resemble moving versions of these traditional illustrations: the stiff figures; the odd, ritualistic arrangements; the static frame. As in the drawings, the faces Parajanov films show no expression; individuals are distinguished by their dress, their elaborate gowns, robes and headdresses. The experience is like going to an old Armenian museum full of paintings whose significance we only partly understand, but whose beauty is universal.

Many simple folk don’t like Pomegranates because they don’t like seeing something they don’t understand: they fear they are missing out on the meaning of the film. It’s their loss. They would be equally bored at the Louvre, where pictures of people they don’t know and Bible stories they don’t remember hang on the walls. Understanding the symbolism can add to one’s appreciation of a painting, but it’s not necessary to enjoying the work: it’s the flow and interplay of the lines, the colors, and the  mood evoked by the symbols that gives a work its actual “meaning.” The rest is trivia, annotation.

Since you can no more spoil The Color of Pomegranates by writing about it than you can spoil a painting by describing it, I will devote the rest of this survey by describing some of the more striking tableaux, which is the best way to get a sense of what this unique film is like. Fear not, there are plenty more where these came from:

  • The boy peeks through the window in a clay mound and sees an underground bath. From above, he spies on a woman, with one breast bare and the other covered by a single seashell.
  • Two men lay on a rug and roll back and forth. Three musicians play in the background. A sixth man stands in the foreground, gesturing to a lute he is holding. Four stringed instruments hang in the air spinning, suspended from invisible wires.
  • Fourteen men in black robes sit on stone pews, noisily munching on apples (or perhaps sucking on pomegranates). A bearded man (who we will identify as the poet Sayat Nova) stands to their right, staring straight ahead and holding an open book. Cut to a shot of the poet looking to the left, then turning to stare into the camera with no expression.
  • The poet digs a grave-sized hole in the floor of a stone cathedral. A cloud (made of cloth?) floats into the room and catches his eye, and he turns to face front, pickaxe extended in one arm. After a few intervening scenes we return to see a flock of sheep entering the church through a doorway in which a woman in a checkered gown also stands. The poet continues to shovel dirt as the animals fill the room.
  • Women in black walk up a stone staircase, facing the camera, holding decorated rugs before them which the raise and lower at intervals. In the foreground, one of these nun-like figures hoists a woman dressed in white by a winch.
  • The poet stands on a stone pedestal as two of the women from the previous scene stand behind him, lowering the tapestries that cover their faces in turn and turning to face the poet, then raising them as he holds out his hand and turns away to reject them.
  • We watch lambs ritually slaughtered between two classical columns. Their blood stains the cobblestones.
  • The poet takes a golden cup from an alcove inside the church and dips it into a font. It comes up empty. He raises his gaze to the ceiling where he sees a fresco of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Suddenly, a man in a Mongol fur hat, face painted silver, appears in the church, mounted on a horse. Several arrows hang magically suspended in the air in front of him as he raises his bow and shoots. Accompanied by an odd sound effect, Mary’s face drops from out of the fresco and falls to the ground, leaving the rest of the picture intact.

From these descriptions, you may see why The Color of Pomegranates failed to gain traction with either the Soviet authorities or mainstream audiences. Parajanov announced that the four themes of all his mature movies were “ethnography, God, love and tragedy.” It is the intense ethnography that sets his films apart: the use of authentic costumes, locations and traditions. Some critics hold that Parjanov’s films are completely unprecedented, but the antecedent to Pomegranates is found in the works of . In conjuring cinema out of nothing, Méliès also made films that look like moving photographs: static cameras filming romantically costumed performers posing on elaborately arranged sets. Parajanov is even fond of using Méliès’ simple editing tricks, splicing in footage so that objects appear and disappear as if by magic. In the other direction, although no one ever attempted to copy exactly what Parajanov achieved with Pomegranates, that is not to say his influence was inconsiderable. He and were mutual admirers, and together they forged a subtly insurgent spiritual Soviet cinema.  was also a contemporary, and although the two filmmakers had no direct contact it’s not hard to see Parajanov’s influence on The Holy Mountain in the exotic compositions, the esoteric spirituality, and in the use of wild animals roaming through the sets. (The scene in Santa Sangre where Fenix stands in a loincloth with his arms outspread while chickens rain down on him seems like it could be a direct quote to Sayat Nova’s death scene, where a similar downpour of fowl fall on a similarly posed figure). Contemporary “painterly” directors who show Parajanov’s influence include Poland’s and Great Britain’s (not to mention Swede , who does Parajanov by way of Edward Hopper). Parajanov is singular, to be sure, but he is also part of the great flow of cinema. The individual talent and the cultural background inform and feed each other. Distinctiveness within tradition is a space Parajanov happily occupies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a work of obvious conviction that is eye-catching, even hypnotic, and almost wholly obscure… A knowledge of the life of Sayat Nova may make it slightly less indecipherable, but the film is elusive in any circumstances. However, anything this purely mysterious has its magic.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (1980 screening)

“…takes the form of an experimental fantasia on the theme of Nova’s life. Paradjanov scares up one startling sequence after another, crafting a bizarre mosaic of Nova’s world while limiting himself to the materials of the poet’s time, not excluding livestock.”–Keith Phipps, The AV Club (DVD)

“It’s a strange, visionary work, highly formal and not easy of access, but compelling in a way that’s almost impossible to describe.”–Pat Graham, The Chicago Reader (2014 restoration)

IMDB LINK: The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

PARAJANOV.COM – The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova) – Brief information on the film from the Parajanov/Vartanov institute

The Color of Pomegranates – Hammer Museum – Post-screening Q&A from UCLA’s Hammer Museum hosted by Armenian director/professor Carla Garapedian and Parajanov expert James Steffen

The Color of Pomegranates * Senses of Cinema – A very detailed essay on the film from Rahul Hamid that aims to “present a few lenses through which the film can be viewed”

The Color of Pomegranates – Valuable overview from the Museum of the Moving Image’s Joanne Nucho elucidating some of the obscure symbolism

The Colour of Pomegranates: a chance to savour a poetic masterpiece – Background from The Guardian on the screening of the 2014 restoration at the London Film Festival

TIFF.net | The Color of Pomegranates – A shorter note on the film from the screening at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival

A Conversation with Tigran Mansurian – An intensive interview with The Color of Pomegrante‘s composer (the original soundtrack is sadly unavailable)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov – James Steffen’s survey is the outstanding work on Parajanov

DVD INFO: Although there may be a better option for watching The Color of Pomegranates (see below), in general it’s a sad situation for Americans. Kino Lorber put out a DVD in 2001 (buy), but from a poor print. The picture is dusty and badly in need of restoration; the color of a pomegranate here is a drab grayish purple, not martyr red as it should be. Now that the film is restored, someone needs to put out a proper release. At least the Kino disc has two extra features for Parajanov fans: the 1-hour documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem and Hagop Hovnatanian, a ten-minute short film from 1967 on the painter of the same name which is similar in style to Pomegranates.

The film is also available in Kino’s four-disc Parajanov box set (buy) along with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerab. Pomegranates is the only film in the set with a substandard transfer.

The good news, for those with players that can handle it, is that there is a “Special Edition” of The Colour of Pomegranates (buy) released by Second Sight Films which is supposed to be struck from a greatly superior print. We have no firsthand information on this disc, but it is supposedly a Region-free DVD in the PAL format (most current North American DVD players can convert PAL, but not all). The release includes two new documentaries on the film and a commentary track by Levon Abrahamyan and Daniel Bird. One final caveat, however: the run time is listed as 70 minutes rather than the usual 79 minutes, which suggests that this might be the “Soviet-approved” censored version of the film (which could explain why it seems to be transferred from a superior source).

The upshot of all this is that we are still awaiting a definitive release of this world cinema classic. Criterion, where art thou?

The Color of Pomegranates is often assumed to be in the public domain, but this seems unlikely, as other films produced in the Soviet Union are under copyright to the studios that originally made them.

(This movie was first nominated for review by reader “Wycuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)”

  1. I just remember this being the video for Juno Reactor’s “God Is God” and thinking “the fuck movie could this POSSIBLY be from?”

  2. «Sergei Parajanov’s movie is just like that book, and we should strive to be like that boy—open and full of wonder…
    Parajanov is singular, to be sure, but he is also part of the great flow of cinema. The individual talent and the cultural background inform and feed each other. Distinctiveness within tradition is a space Parajanov happily occupies.»

    Ihank you. Great review. Love it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *