“I am the man whose life and soul are torment”
The Color of Pomegranates is a 1969 Soviet Armenian art film written and directed by Sergei Parajanov. The film is a breathtaking fusion of poetry, ethnography, and cinema that tells of the life of 18th-century Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat-Nova. Sergei Parajanov’s masterwork overflows with unforgettable images and sounds. In a series of tableaux that blend the tactile with the abstract, The Color of Pomegranates revives the splendors of Armenian culture through the story of the eighteenth-century troubadour Sayat-Nova, charting his intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth through iconographic compositions rather than traditional narrative. (source) “An ancient book in an unfamiliar script; a spoken line of verse, translated as “I am the man whose life and soul are torment”; three pomegranates, bleeding their crimson juice onto white muslin. The opening of The Color of Pomegranates warns us that this life story of Sayat-Nova will not be a conventional one but rather an exploration of his “inner world . . . his passions and torments,” through symbols drawn from medieval Armenian culture and Christianity, along with Parajanov’s own imagination. And these first moments of the film offer some of the most palpably rich imagery ever brought to the screen. A steel dagger also bleeds onto white cloth; a foot crushes grapes on an inscribed stone tablet; and live fish wriggle frantically between two loaves of bread, in what may be a rugged allusion to the biblical miracle.”(source)
The film is presented with little dialogue using active tableaux which depict the poet’s life in chapters: Childhood, Youth, Prince’s Court (where he falls in love with a tsarina), The Monastery, The Dream, Old Age, The Angel of Death and Death. There are sounds and music and occasional singing but dialogue is rare. Each chapter is indicated by a title card and framed through both Sergei Parajanov’s imagination and Sayat Nova’s poems. Actress Sofiko Chiaureli notably plays six roles in the film, both male and female. According to Frank Williams, Parajanov’s film celebrates the survival of Armenian culture in face of oppression and persecution, “There are specific images that are highly charged—blood-red juice spilling from a cut pomegranate into a cloth and forming a stain in the shape of the boundaries of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia; dyers lifting hanks of wool out of vats in the colours of the national flag, and so on”.(Source)
When Martin Scorsese introduced his Film Foundation’s newly restored version of The Colour of Pomegranates at the Toronto film festival in September 2014 he told the expectant audience they were going to witness images and visions “pretty much unlike anything in cinema history. Watching [The Color of Pomegranates] is like opening a door and walking into another dimension, where time has stopped and beauty has been unleashed…. Before all else it’s a cinematic experience, and you come away remembering images, repeated expressive movements, costumes, objects, compositions, colours” (Source)
Four years after Parajanov completed what was then titled Sayat Nova he was arrested by the Soviet authorities and spent more than three years in jail while suffering the indignity of seeing his film re-edited and given a limited release.(Source)
Around the time Parajanov was released from prison, The Color of Pomegranates was smuggled to Western Europe in a bootlegged version. “This already-old film by Parajanov is, quite simply, unlike anything known before,” wrote the French critic Serge Daney, after seeing it at the 1980 Rotterdam Film Festival. “You have to imagine a previously unknown genre of cinema: filmed hagiography.” (Source)
“The history of and background to The Colour of Pomegranates are as remarkable as the film’s fantastical imagery. Parajanov was born in Soviet Georgia of Armenian parents in 1924 and was a talented musician before switching his attentions at the age of 21 to film-making and joining the famous Soviet Russian All-Union State Institute of Cinematography film school in Moscow.
Three years later he had his first clash with the Soviet leadership and spent two months in jail after being found guilty of homosexual acts, then illegal in Russia. Parajanov was released on appeal and always denied the charges but the episode would later be a key factor in the troubled history of The Colour of Pomegranates.
He married in 1950 but his personal life continued to be tormented, and the following year his wife was murdered, the speculation being that her own brothers committed the deed over some religious or financial dispute. His seven-year long second marriage ended in divorce in 1962, the same year as the release of Andrei Tarkovsky’s remarkable debut film Ivan’s Childhood, a turning point for Parajanov, who disowned his earlier work and would later write of his fellow director in the magazine Film Comment: “Tarkovsky, who was younger than I by 12 years, was my teacher and mentor. He was the first in Ivan’s Childhood to use images of dreams and memories to present allegory and metaphor. Tarkovsky helped people decipher the poetic metaphor.” “(Source)
Parajanov was shaped in his early years by the potent intermingling of cultures in his country of birth and perhaps his most significant achievement was to bring the rich heritage of the non-Russian Soviet states of Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine to the attention of world cinema.(Source)
His later films are a heady mix, combining Parajanov’s deep love of the region’s folk art and the influences of other Soviet masters such as Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko with, in the case of The Colour of Pomegranates, stylistic flourishes borrowed from silent film-makers and modernist film techniques in the form of jump cuts.(Source)
The Soviet cinema authorities were happy to continue to work with Parajanov because of his new-found international reputation, but concerns were being expressed about the script even before The Colour of Pomegranates went into production. The film’s idiosyncratic nature allied to the director’s sometimes provocative behaviour plus his involvement in the politics of the region would eventually bring him under close scrutiny.(Source)
The director was unable to complete new projects before being arrested again in 1974 on the pretext of homosexual acts, but as part of what appeared to be a wider political crackdown by the Soviet authorities determined to quell nationalist sentiment in the region. Parajanov only left jail at the end of 1977. His subsequent outspoken defence of artistic freedom led to his re-arrest on trumped-up bribery charges in 1982 and he probably only escaped further imprisonment because of the likelihood of another prominent campaign on his behalf.(Source)
Parajanov was able to complete two more films and be hailed on the international film festival circuit in the late 1980s when he was allowed to travel, but was in the early stages of his most cherished project, the autobiographical Confession, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer from which he would die a year later in 1990.(Source)