By Laura Rossi
The Color of Pomegranates (1969) is a semi-biographical movie on the life of the eighteenth-century Armenian poet Arutin Sayadyan, known as Sayat-Nova, by Sergej Parajanov. The poet was an ashugh, a troubadour that would sing his own poems, chanting of fantastic exploits with a lot of intensity and tellings of beautiful women with sumptuous shapes that were compared to beautiful, sometimes ethereal, elements of nature. The life of the poet is not conveyed through a narrative but through the use of pure visual metaphor following the tone of his poems. The movie shouldn’t be approached with the intent of getting any knowledge on the poet’s life but for appreciation only, it is almost a purely abstract film, it depicts several allegories on chosen phases of Sayat-nova’s (king of the songs) life, his childhood, youth, princess court, the monastery, old age, and death.
Like reading Sayat-Nova’s poetry, the experience of the film is placing the viewer in a state of constant synesthesias. The symbols are covered in smells, colors, sounds, textures such as precious silks and ornate rugs, sparkling stones, cypresses,myrtles, the red rose, and the nightingale. All elements that show the universe of a poet that, as himself states repeatedly at the beginning, is tormented. A soul found in pure tension, that wanders towards an impossible knowledge of love. The poet repeatedly asks himself the nature of his pain, of the pain of the world, the nature of the questions that will never have an answer in his life.
The director, when studying the life of the poet, decided that there were some aspects he would focus on, creating his own connection between its parts, which does not remain immediately explicit but to the viewer, it remains fairly linear. From the beginning of his career as a wool dyer in his family’s craft, he was educated in literature by the Armenian Church, and finally, after the death of his wife Marmar, Sayat-Nova became a monk in the Haghpat monastery. The visual narration of the episodes of the poet’s life is continuous with a constant fluidity, as, in the lines of his poems, it was the director’s successful attempt to transform poetry into the film. Focusing on the use of allegories, especially in Sayat-nova’s childhood, Parajanov depicts certain events (that may or not have happened) with great deepness, through the use of metaphorical imagery. In the first scenes of the movie, the poet is depicted in his youth, being almost sensually attracted to the image and touch of books. Several following scenes suggest a interaction between the boy and literature, books are pressed until water flows out of them, they are put to dry under the sun laying side by side with the poet on a roof-top, creating a scene that expresses the respect that was being built by the poet towards books and his adoration for literature since a young age.
Given the lack of narration during the course of the movie, the life story of the poet is simplified and radically transformed into a series of symbolic still frames, where each element is loaded with meaning, presenting little or no interaction between characters. Great importance is given to some key elements, this is seen by their constant repetition reflecting Sayat-nova’s poetic imagery, such as angels with flat halos and wooden wings, especially elements that shaped his childhood; books, silver balls, and ornate rugs. Repetition also follows some actions to emphasize certain feelings the characters would give towards the camera according to changes of perspective, the use of the color red as a symbol of life itself, seen at the beginning with the image of the pomegranates bleeding on white canvas fabric, this is also present when the lace covering Marmar’s mouth in the marriage scene changes colors from the white to the red, representing the passage of innocence to passion. Finally, the change from red to the color black, a symbol of death and loss. The construction of the film is quite particular, it is focused on slow perception where every detail seems to be symbolically important and secretive. The study of Persian miniature paintings influenced the director greatly. This influence is seen especially in the choice of the filming style as being complete “still life” like a tableaux-vivant, creating a mixture between life and painting, bringing the viewer back to early, really early, cinema. Georges Méliès, in the early days of cinema, led many technical and narrative developments that made cinema become part of a big discussion, whether film making could be considered an art form or not, back then cinema production could be seen divided between realism and formalism. Méliès himself, being on the side of formalism, used all the tools that cinema could give him at the time, such as editing, creating sequences of scenes where the attention of the viewer was conducted by the director, allowing the viewer to focus on what the author wanted him to look at. Instead, realism would give a different experience, marked by deep-focus photography and less editing where shoots were longer, the director would give space to the viewer to “meditate” on a given scene and one would choose where to put his own attention. For Parajanov, the use of formalism was quite essential, as in a mixture of theatre and painting, the camera is placed in a still frontal position, without using the zoom or changing the focal length. The characters, animals, and objects are positioned differently depending on the scene, giving the author the freedom to emphasize what he considers important. Another aspect of Persian miniatures, that was a big influence, was the use of the same “face” to represent different characters, usually, lovers were depicted with extremely similar facial features, which in the movie is seen through the use of the same actor to depict both the poet and his lover.
Parajanov represented the high point of Soviet cinema during a period where production was not so free. He was not only the director but also the designer of many costumes used in the film, always focused on visual and sound details, merging his balanced severe beauty, unreal-looking and metaphorical elements in one movie. The use of heavy symbolism should give the maximum expression of Armenian culture through folk melodies and costumes applied in this abstract atmosphere. All the imagery seem to be collected and shown through the movie as a pure stream of consciousness of the director, forcing the viewer to actively engage with each scene and its symbolism, like hypnosis. The viewer acknowledges that it is almost useless to attempt to decipher what is being shown, Parajanov wraps the entire film in an ambiguous universe. Sayat-nova once said that “The hidden rhythm of a poem must echo in the music, each word must be linked to those that precede and follow it, almost dissolving in them, like a piece of mosaic or an exact brushstroke.” What Parajanov’s successfully translated into a movie is his personal poetic metaphor, certainly hard to decipher.