On rare occasions, a work of art transcends its medium to create something entirely unique. Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates dared to rewrite the language of cinema and redefine the way that sound, moving image, and story interact. To experience this film, and indeed it is an experience, is to see a truly one-of-a-kind work of artistic expression. Parajanov built a world which is above imitation and often above interpretation.
In the most literal sense, the film chronicles the life of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Sayat Nova was the film’s original title, but the Communist Party rejected Parajanov’s original vision as they felt it did not adequately educate the public about Nova’s life and work. Parajanov renamed the film and attempted to distance it somewhat from its specific connection to Nova, but this, again, did not satisfy the censors. Ultimately, filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich re-edited the film for its official Soviet release, but it has since been reconstructed to match Parajanov’s original vision.
Though they were ultimately stifling a tremendous work, the Soviet censors were right about one thing: one could hardly gain a knowledge of Sayat Nova’s life merely by watching The Color of Pomegranates. While the film does divide itself into chapters that roughly correlate with what is known of Nova’s life, it entirely distances itself from traditional character and story structure. Instead, The Color of Pomegranates opts to tell the story of the great poet’s life as a work of poetry itself. Parajanov uses striking images and fascinating, often mismatched sound to tell his story. The film has little dialogue, but its sound is among its most brilliant elements because it often does not correspond to sounds that would be heard in a given scene. Instead Parajanov uses sound to emphasize how musical Sayat Nova’s world could naturally feel. Something as simple as weaving thread may be represented as a beautiful stringed instrument or a group of people dancing may be heard not as the pitter-pattering of feet, but as the ringing of bells symbolized by the clamoring of jewelry worn around their ankles.
The images on the screen often play out like moving paintings, and Parajanov claimed that the film’s visual style was heavily influenced by Armenian illuminated miniatures. Motifs used throughout the film express Sayat Nova’s emotions and desires. Religious symbolism and music are on display, showing the poet’s fraught relationship with Christianity, even during his time in a monastery. Even more powerful are the sexual motifs utilized throughout, which were among the issues the Russian censors had with the film. As The Color of Pomegranates reveals its true meaning, sex as a driver for Sayat Nova beginning in his youth is amongst the most obvious and powerful themes. Early in the film, a young Nova sees a woman in a bath house, naked other than a shell covering her breast. The image of a shell over one breast is used as a symbol for desire throughout the film. The titular pomegranates create a stark and bloody image at the film’s opening, but they are utilized again when Nova first enters the monastery. The monks around him noisily consume the juicy pomegranates, simulating gratuitous sexual noises as the poet learns to cope with resisting temptation.
Four different actors play Sayat Nova throughout the film, but the one who has rightfully garnered the most praise is Sofiko Chiaureli. She plays five different characters including a young adult Nova. Parajanov was enamored with Chiaureli’s beauty and talent, and indeed her versatility is put to good use. She is particularly striking playing both a young Nova and his lover Princess Ana in the film’s second major segment. This section of The Color of Pomegranates is perhaps the most recognized and the most interestingly constructed.
As Sayat Nova and Princess Ana’s romance unfolds, Parajanov uses repetitive actions and vibrant color to advance the story. Early scenes in the sequence are draped with whites and other aesthetically pleasing colors as music illustrates the pleasures and passions of their relationship. As the pair realize that their romance was doomed from the start, the colors turn to shades of black and red and the imagery creates a sense of frustration and isolation. One of the most striking shots of the film occurs immediately after the Princess Ana chapter. Nova decides to enter a monastery in an attempt to escape from heartbreak. The first shot of the new segment is a breathtaking long shot of the beautiful monastery entirely surrounded by pitch blackness. The contrast between the gorgeous building and the utter black emphasize the sense of complete isolation that Parajanov is communicating.
The monastery segment itself emphasizes the monotony and boredom of life in religious seclusion. Even as Nova has deeply spiritual experiences, he continues on with his tedious work. A scene paralleling a real experience that the poet wrote about where the church mysteriously fills up with a mist and a large flock of sheep is accompanied with Nova digging a grave for an upcoming funeral, never breaking focus to watch the spectacular event happening around him. The monotony is only broken only when sexual temptation re-enters his life.
Though it may seem that I have some grasp on what The Color of Pomegranates is trying to say, the truth is that the film is still an enigma to me. It is a delightful and paralyzing puzzle which could not possibly be fully dissected, even perhaps by Parajanov himself. It is one of the great accomplishments in filmmaking and one of the great abstract works of art. The film is a deep source of fascination for me, and one that I look forward to revisiting over the years in the hopes that I never discover all of its secrets.