The Color of Pomegranates, (1968), created by the amazing Georgian/Armenian (Soviet), director Sergei Parajanov has been screening at the 52nd New York Film Festival in its “Revival Series.” The film is a groundbreaking visual masterpiece that is unforgettable in its striking pictorial images, vibrant colors, and unique use of the stationary camera.
This stunning film gives a visual account of the historic Armenian/Georgian ashik, the “King of Song,” Sayat Nova (1712-1795). In popular culture this troubadour is considered to be one of the greatest folk singers and songwriters who ever created music in the Caucasus. A talented musician, songwriter, and poet, Sayat Nova performed at the Georgian court and also worked as a diplomat creating an alliance between Georgia, Armenia, and Shirvan against the Persian Empire. However, when he fell in love with the king’s sister, he was expelled from his court position. He toured the countryside and honed his already proficient musicianship and poetic skills by playing and singing for anyone who would listen and pay for his entertainment. Writing and singing about his journey, his life, and romantic love, his listeners felt he was worthy of hire. It was so much so that his poetry has remained to this day.
In choosing his subject Parajanov selected a figure out of legend and reality. But rather than to make his film a “real life” narrative of the poet’s history, the director imagined those symbolic elements and artifacts from the poet’s culture and background that impacted his life and that carried a great weight of meaning to him. To select the most stunning of images, Parajanov was guided by his own understanding of Armenian culture, and the images, symbols, and themes from Sayat Nova’s poems. These pictures comprised the color dappled events and highlights that distilled the most important moments for Sayat Nova, from his youth to his old age: images from his childhood, his youth, his falling in love, his marriage, his ordination in a monastery, his death. These are events he sang and wrote about in his poetry. Parajanov selected the images from the bard’s poems that most impacted his own imagination to create them anew and coalesce their visual and symbolic importance on screen.
Every screen shot in in the film is a canvass upon which Parajanov used his selected elements like a painter. He positions all objects and people against lighter backgrounds; his silent characters dressed in gorgeous and richly detailed costumes are miming, standing still, or dancing with specific symbolic movements to musical accompaniment. The effect is of a visual tone poem that is absolutely indescribable in its power and beauty, especially if one has not seen anything like this before. One’s attention is always drawn inward to the characters and objects.
Parajanov never moved his camera and there is no dialogue, only the unique music of the period with the instruments from that time. Considering current cinema and especially blockbuster thrillers which can become repetitive in their intense series of action editing and in their AGI effects, one would think that this would not hold our attention. Amazingly, it is the opposite. Parajanov’s impulses were to strike out against the grain and “wisdom” of the schools of cinema and tell a story using the the camera in a new way. That way is intensely visual because of his brilliant, minimalistic shot composition, stationary camera, and absence of dialogue.
Thus, with his innovative cinematic style of vibrating stasis, people and elements enter Parajanov’s frames, create movement or music, then leave. Or shots of action are taken outdoors in a vignette revealing a segment of the poet’s life. A vivid example out of Sayat Nova’s youth, is the action of the weavers creating the beautiful threads for rug weaving: they dip the wool into the hot kettles of red, blue, and black dye then remove the dyed wool with a long pole and throw it on the decorated red, white, and black tile rooftop to drain and dry; we see colors, discern they are wool threads, and we hear the loud slapping sounds of the wool on the tile; the rest is silence. We are allowed to contemplate the vision, take in the history, feel the impact on our own imagination, and let it resonate its colors deep within our memories.
All framed compositions are fascinating and sumptuous to our eyes. Parajanov’s color palate is awash in life as we watch vignettes of Sayat Nova’s life stages. It is a chronicle without words, a chronicle of living still life frames, with living elements in stasis. The juxtaposition of movement and still camera is effective because we are continually mesmerized by the contrast as we wait and see what will happen, as we do in life.
Parajanov’s cinematic artistry was nearly lost to us. The brilliant director was scorned and demeaned for this most incredible of his works by Soviet authorities who banned the original work, Sayat Nova and re-edited and re-named it The Color of Pomegranate. The director was too much of an iconoclast for the Soviet government who wanted to prevent his “type” of art, which didn’t conform to the standards of Soviet cinema. Eventually, he went from blacklisting to a 5 year sentence of hard labor in the Siberian Gulag in 1973 on trumped up charges. When he got out, he was prevented from pursuing his beloved cinematic art until the political situation softened and he was able to make the multi-award winning The Legend of Suram Fortress in 1984, after Georgian intellectuals extensively petitioned the government.
Not only is this film a historical edification of the Armenian culture and particularly one of its greatest poets, Sayat Nova, it is also an expression of how cinema can be innovative, breaking every rule filmmakers use by overthrowing assumptions about how to tell a story or capture the audience’s attention and interest. Parajanov understood that cinema should be a delight to the eye, and ear and that silence with action was as gripping as dialogue and action which distracts the audience into using three modalities. For these reasons and others he excluded dialogue (most probably for political reasons as well, for the dialogue would have been Armenian or Georgian). Nevertheless, his work is rightly credited a work of genius in its innovative cinematic artistry, beauty, and power.
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