(1968) Directed by Sergei Paradjanov
In the temple of cinema there are images, light, and reality. Sergei Paradjanov was the master of that temple. Jean Luc Godard
Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov may have been one of the world’s most gifted, original filmmakers. He has been called a true visionary and a mystic. Unfortunately, Paradjanov is just one more name on the long list of artists who were legally constrained or politically repressed by the former Soviet Union. While Paradjanov’s 1964 film Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors may have disturbed the Soviet regime, his most unique and controversial work, Sayat Nova (later titled The Color of Pomegranates), absolutely outraged them, as it departed from every Central Committee policy regarding “Soviet realism.”
After being sentenced to five years in a hellish maximum security prison, Paradjanov was released in 1977 when a group of international writers and artists including John Updike, Bernardo Bertolucci, and poet Louis Aragon petitioned Leonid Brezhnev’s state department. Like his beloved colleague Andrei Tarkovsky, Paradjanov is now slowly becoming an integral facet of world discourse about important cinema, thanks to film preservation, DVD releases, and film festivals. That’s not to suggest that his work might be significantly less obscure if, during his most creative and energetic period, there had been no totalitarian constraints.
As one critic states, in terms of accessibility, Paradjanov makes Tarkovsky look like Spielberg. Filmmaker and writer Gregory Pearse also writes, “For some inexplicable reason his stature as one of the artistic giants of the 20th century has not been acknowledged by the public at large. So-called specialists in the field of cinema talk about his work with great difficulty-often defaulting to such vague conclusions as ‘visually stunning, but obscure. But still worth seeing… .’ And this is indeed a pity. It is precisely now, with the standard for visual art being set by MTV, that this man’s work could help restore in people a lost sense of beauty.” It’s paradoxical that Pearse should use MTV as a measure of decline, since one of the most intriguing music videos of the last few years was Juno Reactor’s “God Is God,” which was basically The Color of Pomegranates edited down to six minutes with an amazing electronic soundtrack. His larger point concerning the inexplicable nature of Pomegranates is valid, however.
Paradjanov’s work inevitably inspires critics and viewers to share what they witnessed in near ecstatic terms, but a more practical approach might be to determine what Paradjanov’s masterpiece is not. Although the “story” ostensibly details the life of 18th-century Armenian national poet and troubadour Sayat Nova, there is no plot and no narrative. Events do not unfold chronologically. Except in a few instances, the camera does not move, and there is no dialogue. Using even the very loosest criteria for defining “motion picture” then, it is accurate to say that a screening of The Color of Pomegranates does not constitute a night at the movies. It makes for extremely challenging viewing; at times it is tedious and infuriating. In spite of that, or actually, because of much of it, this astonishing and baffling film is a deeply moving example of artistic determination and originality. There is nothing else like it in all of cinema.
In many scenes, which are usually static tableau in which characters move in and out of frame, it is clear that Paradjanov is using a motion picture camera to recreate religious icon paintings. It is impossible to determine which scenes depict the life of Christ and which deal with Sayat Nova, and so it may be Paradjanov’s intention to conflate the two. More puzzling than the icon scenes are those in which enigmatic rituals and gestures are carried out by truly beautiful men and women, each of whom calmly and resolutely stare directly into the camera. The colors, set designs, and carefully choreographed action are lovely to behold a (credit to designer Stepan Andranikyan and cinematographer Suren Shakhbazyan), but Paradjanov adds an overtly surreal element to these tableaux. Objects levitate or disappear, apparel unfolds from bodies, and water flows out of walls. The score, consisting of horn blasts, lutes, lyres, and gorgeous choral pieces has an ancient quality that lends a somber or sacred tone to almost every moment. A narrator reads Sayat Nova’s poetry, and although his words somehow manage to make the proceedings still more baffling, it is apparent that we are witnessing a deliberate, shamelessly personal blending of transcendental and surreal cinema with Eastern-Orthodox Christian traditions.
That isn’t all that Paradjanov deftly blends. The sensual quality of some of the characters is subtle, but when cleverly juxtaposed with religious icons and scenarios, certain gestures evoke a mild eroticism that creates considerable tension. Paradjanov expresses yearning, despair, and ecstasy through this method, and it is easy to forget that these are mostly static images, with no dialogue or plot. Combined with excerpts from Nova’s poems, many scenes recall the sensual, ecstatic, and transcendental works of the Sufi mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi. In such instances, Paradjanov is blending the sensual with the sacred, the spiritual with the mystical. He ultimately blends Armenian culture and Christian lore into a single, mystical vision. The vision may defy interpretation (there have been no takers so far) but the images are nonetheless indelible. They are in the truest sense a mystical meditation: calm and rigorously organized, yet irrational and ultimately ecstatic.
There are links to this kind of cinematic artistry. Paradjanov happily admitted to an influence by Pasolini (certain scenes in Pomegranates recall The Gospel According to St. Matthew), and there is plenty of influence in evidence by Cocteau, Ray, and Dovzhenko here as well. In turn, Paradjanov influenced his contempories. His work gently hovers over Fellini’s Satyricon and Casanova. Some of the more experimental efforts by Derek Jarman recall a few of Paradjanov’s techniques, and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books looks in places like a direct homage to The Color of Pomegranates.
Still, in the case of this particular picture, there is not really any cinematic work that comes before it, or that may be placed after it, in terms of style or effect. It’s as though it landed here, which is true of many pure products of the imagination. For imagination, Paradjanov was never lacking, as his memorable comment on what it means to be a director suggests:
"It’s like a child’s adventure. You take the initiative among the other children, creating a mystery. You mould things into shape and create. You dress yourself as Charlie’s aunt or as Hans Christian Andersen’s heroes. Using feathers from a trunk you transform yourself into a rooster or a firebird. You torment people with your artistic delight, scaring mother and grandmother in the middle of the night. This is what directing is. You can’t learn it. You have to be born with it."