ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Color of Pomegranates (1969) Blu Ray (Second Sight)
This is a biographical account of the life of Sayat Nova, a famous 18th-century Armenian poet and musician. However, instead of taking a conventional narrative it goes for a more abstract series of images of Armenian folk culture from the period. It aims to represent the inner thoughts of the poet more than external events.
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Hailed as a masterpiece
Georgian-Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates is widely regarded as a masterpiece, being listed in Time Out’s 100 greatest films of the 20th century, ranking 84th in a 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the world’s greatest films and having admirers amongst such great directors as Michelangelo Antonioni and Martin Scorsese. However, from a personal point of view, the whole endeavour left me feeling rather cold.
It’s not that it isn’t a beautiful piece of cinema. It’s one packed with surreal, metaphorical tableaux filled with colourful and elaborate period costumes and artifacts, accompanied by soothing swirls of Armenian folk music and narrated pieces of poetry. It’s a rich feast for the eyes and ears divided into distinct temporal sections representing periods in Nova’s life. The artist is represented by several performers depending on age: Melkon Alekyan plays him as a child, actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays him as a young adult (as well as taking on various other roles through the film), Vilen Galstyan plays him as a mid-age adult who has consigned himself to the cloisters and Gogi Gegechkori plays him as an old man.
The child sections were my personal favourite, depicting the young poet (in a typically childlike manner) as a carefree and joyous individual who dances around his parents and other adults, blissfully free from the chores they are carrying out in the background. An overhead shot of some carpets being washed while he runs around haphazardly is particularly memorable. The sections depicting him as a young man with a woman who appears to be his lover (also played by the striking Sofiko Chiaureli) are somewhat more esoteric and nakedly striving for metaphor over storytelling. This lover weaves different colours of veils in front of him - a possible reference to the art of wooing lovers by manufacturing surface appearances. The later cloister sections are filled with sheep and (what sadly look like real) headless chickens, perhaps referring to blind faith and the forlorn nature of spiritual quests respectively.
Add floating musical instruments, open books on the roof of a monastery (Sanahin in Armenia), golden hands, peacocks and the titular pomegranates to the list of metaphorical imagery. Unfortunately, the sheer weight of it (much of which, frankly, was lost on me) coupled with the lack of any overt storyline to grasp onto ultimately turned into a baffling and alienating experience.
People who are into the more esoteric end of the world cinema spectrum will doubtless be enchanted by The Color of Pomegranates. Those who prefer something approaching a conventional narrative (albeit still with its fair share of scenes of visual poetry) would be better off seeing Parajanov’s previous film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965).
Runtime: 79 mins
Dir: Sergei Parajanov
Script: Sergei Parajanov, based on poetry by Sayat Nova
Starring: Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Alekyan, Vilen Galstyan, Gogi Gegechkori, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Japaridze, Hovhannes Minasyan, Onik Minasyan
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The 4K restoration (a joint work between Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna) is beautiful, the colours (blues and reds in particular) are almost obscenely rich and everything looks like it could have been shot yesterday. The sound mix is pristine and soothing.
Highlights amongst the extras
The film comes in two versions: Armenian and Russian. Each one has its own commentary - the Armenian version subtitled, and the Russian one narrated.
Annotated Commentary by James Steffen
The fact that this commentary uses subtitles in lieu of spoken word helps to be able to understand the significance of this barrage of symbolism while still appreciating the wonderful music. Steffen discusses the differences between the Armenian and Russian versions, the latter of which cut a number of suggestive and religious scenes. He also talks about the locations used for filming and more details of Sayat Nova’s life - e.g. the woman seen with him as a young adult was Princess Ana, the great love of his life. There are also various behind the scenes revelations, amongst them being that a donkey became aroused during a scene involving actress Sofiko Chiaureli stroking it. This meant that it had to be replaced by a female donkey.
If you (like myself) who lack familiarity towards Sayat Nova and Armenian folk culture then I recommend that you turn on this commentary for your first viewing.
A second disc contains a boatload of extras, amongst them the following:
This 1966 short is available with annotated commentary by Daniel Bird; again, you may wish to turn it on for first viewing to glean some background information about the production. It was originally intended to be a feature-length film shot in a tableau-style manner which was subsequently used in The Color of Pomegranates. The Soviet authorities cancelled the production due to a number of concerns with the material - a scene of full-frontal female nudity being amongst them. However, by this time Parajanov had already filmed a number of screen tests and decided to turn them into a short.
I found it a little livelier and more accessible than Pomegranates, if only because of its short (14-minute) length and the more eclectic material.
Memories about Sayat Nova
This 2006 Russian-made documentary runs through key scenes from the film with commentary. It’s worth a watch because
it includes several moments which were snipped from both versions, amongst them being a rather suggestive “milk scene”.
Parajanov: A Requiem
A fascinating 1-hour documentary (from 1994) featuring interviews with Parajanov along with some clips of has various films. He reserves considerable towards for the Soviet despots who sentenced him to spells in the gulag for his dissident views. However, he managed to keep himself alive behind the barb wire by creating various artworks - some of which are seen here.
There are a number of other documentaries on the disc (including the feature-length The World is a Window from 2011 - which recounts the making of the film via a series of interviews with Parajanov’s colleagues) plus a 114-page book introduced by Martin Scorsese.
The metaphorical nature of the main film won’t be for all tastes. However, the sheer abundance of extras makes for a highly engrossing and long-lasting package.