When Soviet film director Sergei Parajanov set out to make a film on the life of Armenian -Georgian poet Sayat-Nova (1712-1795) he wasn’t interested in a literal, blow-by-blow account of the man’s life. Since details about Sayat-Nova are sometimes sketchy (Sayat-Nova means “King of Song”; his real name isn’t certain, but might have been Harutyun Sayatyan) and poetry is often about evocation rather than narrative, why not make a poem in film? But Parajanov was working in the 1960s, and poetry had evolved a great deal in the 200+ years since Sayat-Nova’s day. In between had come a great many styles and approaches, most especially, in my opinion, Surrealism.
When Parajanov submitted the film to Soviet authorities in 1969, they refused to allow it to be titled Sayat-Nova, so the title The Color of Pomegranates was substituted. The film does illustrate events in Sayat-Nova’s life, just not in a very literal way. Emotions and themes are presented in tableaux, posed before the viewer often with little movement or elaboration – and no explication whatsoever. Parajanov compared the film to a series of Persian miniatures, and that is easily noticeable, but they are miniatures to a book you have never read, in a language you don’t speak, from a religion you have only slight awareness of.
I’m not going to spell out the details of Sayat-Nova’s life, either as a diplomat, an ashik (wandering minstrel) or as a priest. All three professions involve mediating between powers, presenting one point of view to others in ways to achieve the greatest effects. I came into The Color of Pomegranates cold, not the best way – or is it? The everyday facts and figures clarify the story, but do not add to it. It is a poem in film, made after poetry had freed itself from more literal modes of expression. Not a Sayat-Nova poem, but a Sergei Parajanov poem about Sayat-Nova.
I highly recommend Kyle Kallgren’s video essay on the film. The film is up on YouTube, though a DVD or Blu-Ray would give you better quality. Should you want a brief biography about Sayat-Nova and samples of his poems (in translation), I recommend this page.
It is curious that Sayat-Nova’s poems are largely secular, given the deeply religious nature of Armenia and Georgia at that time, and the importance of it in his own life. Because of the stylization, even the secular scenes carry large loads of symbolism, rendering them like icons or religious miniatures. The theatricality of religious ritual is easy to spot, and scenes from the film could be taken as some sort of metaphysical masque or Surrealist passion play, with Sayat-Nova (bearded, often dressed in simple robes) as the stand-in for Christ. Everything is artificial in multiple senses of the word – not only “fake” but more importantly manufactured, staged. Though some scenes are set outdoors, the actions performed eschew any realism. And that brings us to the end of the film…
The artificiality of the film includes its use of sound. Dialogue is all but nonexistent; the music does not always seem to match what is happening – though that would require you to know what’s happening in the first place… You understand why I referred to the Surrealists: conscious staginess, pose and posture instead of naturalistic action, a dreamlike quality that is not truly dreamlike, but what we imagine dreams to be. The young man Sayat-Nova and the woman he loves (a Georgian Princess) appear to be played by the same actor. Figures appear and repeat gestures that have no obvious meaning.
There is a funeral (the photo above is from another part of the film; don’t let me confuse you). A group of mourners face the camera – everyone faces the camera; we are present throughout, though rarely do the characters, looking outward, seem to see us – and they repeat a simple line: The world is a window. This coda is clearly meant as a definition, a summation of a kind. What can we make of it? Windows can admit light and air into a confined space. They can limit a view. They can distort or color perception.
Strange that in a film about a man to whom language was so important, there is so little language used.
I cannot explain The Color of Pomegranates. To do so would be to diminish the film. Like a Surrealist work, I suggest you let it ignite whatever trains of thought or imagination arise. Research can come later, if you choose. It is a modern poem about an older time, and so the window into its world is not true to its source, but a melding of now and then. It is a dream. Dream it.