The Color of Pomegranates

Studio: Criterion

Apr 26, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


When asked to describe how he became a film director, Sergei Parajanov compared his craft to kids playing dress-up and going on adventures. “Using feathers from a trunk, you transform yourself into a rooster or a firebird,” the filmmaker said. He said that his craft was about “creating a mystery.” By that standard, his 1969 film The Color of Pomegranates is his masterpiece. It’s a film enveloped by mystery, animated by the same spirit of playfulness and dress-up that let Parajanov see firebirds in a pile of feathers.

A profoundly strange mix of religious parable, Surrealist pageantry, and ethnographic film, The Color of Pomegranates is Parajanov’s retelling of the life of the 18th-century poet and balladeer Sayat-Nova. It’s also a tribute to the Georgian-born Parajanov’s Armenian roots. Steeped with sacred imagery and rendering the life of medieval Armenian peasants with vivid detail, the film feels like necromancy. Frame by frame, Parajanov is trying to will a dead time back to life.

What makes Parajanov’s film so unique and inscrutable is its unique tableaux style. There is virtually no dialogue (although voices sing and recite prayers and incantations offscreen), with characters reacting to each other onscreen with the stilted mannerisms of hieroglyphic figures. Parajanov’s world is a 2D landscape where all the actors face out directly towards the camera. They move slowly and purposefully, like every gesture they make is coded with occult significance.

Parajanov called the film a “Persian jewellery case.” “On the outside, its beauty fills the eyes; you see the fine miniatures. Then you open it, and inside you see still more Persian accessories.” It’s an apt metaphor for the closed-off world of Pomegranates, which feels as staged and intricately crafted as a cigar box diorama or Cornell box.

The Color of Pomegranates may well be the most theatrical film ever made, in the sense that it feels like the actors in Pomegranates are performing directly in front of you. Whether they’re staring straight ahead or casting their eyes off frame, it feels like everyone in the movie is either appealing to you or trying to evade your gaze. Most of the cast moves with a halting timidness, like they’re stage actors in rehearsal waiting for a director to shout out changes to their blocking. They move as though they’re awaiting your judgment; Pomegranates is a spiritual film that seems to cast the viewer in the role of God.

It’s not just the tableaux compositions that makes Pomegranates feel like a jewellery box: the visuals themselves are exquisite. Parajanov packs the film with gorgeous, indelible images: Sayat-Nova as a boy, lying in the middle of a field of open books; pomegranate juice seeping through white cloth like blood; statues of angels swaying in golden mirrors; a dying man’s body getting showered with chicken feathers while he’s surrounded by lit candles.

The ornate set dressing, stylized acting, and angelic characters places Parajanov on a continuum with other filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman, and Tarkovsky who make films that have the intensity and trappings of religious rituals. There’s also a bit of queer sensibility in Pomegranates that marks Parajanov as a kindred spirit to Jarman and Anger: his film is shot through with moments of surreal eroticism, like characters who conceal their breasts with snail shells and men lounging in bathhouses and sticking peacock’s beaks in their mouths. Parajanov even uses an actress, the riveting Sofiko Chiaureli, to play a variety of male AND female parts throughout the film (including a brilliantly staged scene in which two characters played by Sofiko seduce each other).

It’s one of the most profoundly subversive films to come out of the Soviet film industry, which had the unfortunate side effect of Parajanov getting the wrong kind of attention from the authorities. Four years after filming The Color of Pomegranates, the Soviet filmmaker was indicted for a list of charges that included “surrealist tendencies” and sentenced to five years in a maximum-security gulag.

It wasn’t the first time Parajanov had run afoul of authority; he had done time in a Georgian prison for committing “homosexual acts” in 1947. A profoundly unlucky man, the presumably-bisexual Parajanov also had two marriages fall apart before making Pomegranates: his first wife was murdered in 1951, and his second wife divorced him in 1962.

That streak of bad luck extended to his film.

Originally titled Sayat Nova, Soviet censors changed the title to The Color of Pomegranates (perhaps one of the few instances where state-sanctioned censorship turned something mundane into poetry) and recut his film. Apparently Parajanov created too much mystery: the censors objected that his biography of Sayat-Nova was too stylized and hard to understand. All references to the poet’s name were cut from the film’s credits and chapter titles for its Armenian release.  A Russian filmmaker, Sergei Yutkevich, later recut the film for a brief run in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until a restoration in 2014 that a cut of the film that was as close as possible to Parajanov’s original vision finally saw the light of day.

The version of the film on the new Criterion disc comes from a restoration by Cinetica di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory. Creating a 4K transfer from the original 36 mm camera negative, the image quality on this disc is a revelation. It reveals layers of fine details and sumptuous textures that really makes Parajanov’s visuals pop.

The Criterion release also comes packed with some excellent extras, including an insightful commentary track by Tony Rayns, a video essay by Parajanov scholar James Steffen, and several documentaries on Parajanov, his films, and the life of Sayat-Nova. For a film as mysterious and hard to unpack as Pomegranates, having these supplements on hand goes a long towards helping to make sense of Parajanov’s hermetic opus.

That’s not to say, though, that Parajanov’s film is something that can be fully “solved.”

Martin Scorsese, a vocal admirer of Parajanov, summed up the appeal of the film when he said “Watching Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, or Sayat-Nova, is like opening a door and walking into another dimension, where time has stopped and beauty has been unleashed.”  In The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov created a beautiful mystery that you could spend a lifetime getting lost in.

www.criterion.com/films/29219-the-color-of-pomegranates




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Video Transmitter and Receiver
May 10th 2018
2:32am

In fact, this fascination with handcrafted objects is a key trait of Parajanov’s mature filmmaking style. Although viewers tend to remember his international breakthrough Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) for its vertiginous camerawork, already a significant portion of that film consists of still life compositions and tableaux.

QATAR FLIGHT TRAVEL Al Doha
November 3rd 2018
1:00am

A window to what? Presumably, a window to God, to a spiritual realm more perfect and more justified than the world we live in. But the nature of what lies beyond the window is not what is impressive