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The Color of Pomegranates

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Apr 17, 2018
The Color of Pomegranates

To appreciate the lyric, purely cinematic poetry of Sergei Parajanov's 1969 film "The Color of Pomegranates," you need do nothing more than putting this beautiful restoration into your Blu-ray player and enjoy. To understand the complexities of the film and fully understand its formal and visual ingenuity, however, you'll need to pay close attention to the extras that Criterion has packed onto this new edition, especially the video essay narrated by Parajanov scholar James Steffen. It's not homework or even research: It's an opportunity to have your horizons broadened.

Parajanov was a gay filmmaker living and working in a repressive Soviet regime (not unlike the climate gays face in Russia today). Party leaders approved of the film's subject matter - it's a highly stylized biography, of sorts, of an 18th century poet and troubadour who went by the name Sayat-Nova, "Hunter of Songs," and the fact that Sayat-Nova wrote poems of unparalleled beauty in three languages native to the Transcaucasia region of what later became nations in the Soviet Union (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia). The son of a weaver, Harutyun Sayatyan - that was his original name - ended up at the royal court of the Georgian king Heraclitus II, but a scandal around his having fallen in love with the king's sister led him to become an "ashugh," or itinerant musician. Later, he joined a monastery, where he remained until his early 80s; he was murdered in a Christian church in his hometown of Tiflis, to which he had returned when Turkish soldiers took the town. Legend has it that he was apprehended in a cathedral and told to convert to Islam or die, to which Sayat-Nova responded with a bit of poetry to the effectuate he would "remain faithful to my church; I will remain faithful to Jesus." He was killed at once.

These episodes are illustrated or, in the latter case, hinted at by means of highly stylized settings. In a way - as various commentaries note - the film reflects the Persian tradition of miniature paintings; each scene is a tableau with form, movement, and color transmitting a multitude of meanings. We see the poet as a child at a monastery, where he receives his education; at the royal court, both the poet as a young man and the princess which whom he's in love are played by the same actress (again, as inspired by paintings that traditionally depict lovers as having the same face); eventually, a third act plays him in mid- and later life, during his two decades as a monk.

The biographical bones are fleshed out with lovely, sometimes perplexing, and often humorous set pieces that gallop by, one after the next, in a wash of dramatic, deliberate compositions. The usual conventions of film simply don't apply here: This is a totally different sort of filmmaking. The name of British filmmaker Derek Jarman comes up a couple of times in the extras and the booklet essay by Ian Christie, and strictly in terms of visual panache it's a good reference point (the influence on Jarman is instantly recognizable), but Parajanov is doing something so rare in film, and doing it so well, that it's hard to think of a truly fitting comparison. Put Jarman in a blender with Peter Greenaway and Luis Buñuel, add a jigger of Pasolini and maybe the barest pinch of Monty Python just for flavoring, and you might start to edge into Parajanov territory.

Making the film even more challenging and elliptical are the ways in which Parajanov was compelled to accede to the demands of Party overseers that he not make the film too overtly about Sayat-Nova. For someone of Parajanov's visual genius, this amounted to a directive to make the film more richly off the wall. (More bureaucratic meddling resulted in a more linear cut, essentially a bowdlerization of the work. This version, we are told, is "the cut closest to Parajanov's original vision.") The result is something not too far distant from a cinematic version of James Joyce's loopy, intellectually frenzied, and yet inherently disciplined manner of storytelling.

For some people, this movie will be maddening. For others, though... just, wow. You need to see this, soak in it, and live with it, maybe forever.

In addition to Christie's written essay and Steffan's video essay, the extras include an interview with Steffan; an audio commentary by filmmaker Tony Rayns; two documentaries by Martiros M. Vartanov, one of them a short "impressionistic" documentary on the film's creation; a segment of a 1977 French television series, "Spirit and Traditions of Oriental Christians," that is dedicated to Sayat-Nova's life and music; and a documentary of Parajanov from 2003,

"The Color of Pomegranates"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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