Before seeing The Color of Pomegranates , I’d never heard of Sayat-Nova, the medieval ashik so beloved his compositions are popularly sung to this day, so famed his name literally translates to King of Songs. Ostensibly a biography of Nova’s life from boyhood through martyrdom by invader’s sword, the film trades the literal and linear for pure emotion through juxtaposition, echoing the poet’s simile with jump-cuts and imagery instead of words. The effect is the same: impressionistic, jarring, yet lyrical. Sergei Parajanov did not make a film to be understood, but experienced.
In a scene from Nova’s youth, he is surrounded by illuminated manuscripts drying post-flood, mesmerized without comprehension by the flapping pages’ detailed icons. So Pomegranates models itself in both form and function, mimicking the miniatures’ opulent palate and stiff mannerisms in a series of tableaux vivant. An early image of three pomegranates seeping ruby red into white cloth loses no potency if you don’t realize they leech out the ancient Kingdom of Armenia’s boundary. Like the marginalia of these rich works, here the holy meets the bawdy on a human plane. Goats are slaughtered. Angels roam blind. Sensuality suffuses the most banal chores like yarn dyeing and rug washing. Parajanov himself said even the Armenian people wouldn’t understand the film, but “are going to this picture as to a holiday.”
Knowledge of the 18th century or Armenian history would add depth to the film’s layered symbolism, just as familiarity with ballet would enhance The Red Shoes—but lack of it won’t detract a bit from the breathtaking experience of plunging into the film’s jewel-box brilliance. Unsurprisingly, both films feature in the Museum of the Moving Image series “Martin Scorsese: Great Restorations”—apparently Marty and I share a taste for sumptuous, melancholic studies in humanity blown up to the grandiose.
The 79-minute version screening is the Cineteca di Bologna restoration, which claims to come “as close to the director’s vision as possible.” What that even means after Parajanov himself signed off on a 77-minute version—which, by demand of the Communist government, cut all direct references to Sayat Nova and a good deal of religious imagery, was re-titled and released only in Armenia with new abstract intertitles—is uncertain. The film’s entire creation involved constant compromise, and even then it wasn’t enough. Shortly after the release, Parajanov was arrested and sentenced to 5 years in a labor camp on trumped up charges of homosexual rape, emerging a year early at the behest of artists around the world to continue his creative work.
“It is interesting that the pomegranate was not a visible element of national identification in Soviet Armenia, even though it was such a popular ornament in historical Armenian manuscripts and stone carvings. Perhaps the gray, dull restrictions of Soviet life could not withstand such a colorful artistic element.” - Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore (Irina Petrosian, David Underwood)