Saturday, 19 March 2011

Sergei Parajanov: Color of Pomegranates - Цвет граната (Sayat Nova) (1968)

Directed by Sergei Parajanov.
Starring Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan

The Color of Pomegranates (1972) is considered the director’s masterpiece, but it’s also one of his most challenging works. Nominally a biography of Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova, the film opens with a series of striking tableaux vivant, most notably one in which the youthful Nova lies down in what looks like a concrete gully with seemingly endless books arranged around him, their pages fluttering fantastically in the breeze. Books are crucial in Paradjanov, not only because they contain and hold much of the world’s artistic history, but because much of his imagery is inspired by the ancient illuminated manuscripts that he always managed to obtain access to. (The church apparently liked him more than the government did.) Nova’s history is rendered as a kind of interiorized bildungsroman, tracing the boy’s progress from early bookworm to apprentice rugmaker to devotee of the female body. "I am the man whose life and soul are tortured," reads a subtitle repeated throughout the film, but Paradjanov’s colorful vision of a rich culture in which every dress is a tapestry and every man a handsome devil is far more upbeat than the phrase suggests. Kino has done justice to this work with a solid transfer and a slew of extras. The latter include a rare 1965 short (10 minutes) directed by Paradjanov, Hagop Hoynatanian, and Ron Holloway’s loving documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem, running nearly an hour and containing essential interviews, photos, excerpts from the oeuvre, and drawings.

Steeped in religious iconography, The Color of Pomegranates is a deeply spiritual testament to director Sergei Parajanov’s fascination with Armenian folk art and culture. It is also a controversial work, which, coupled with another of his films, Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors, led to his arrest and imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag for four years. The Soviets insisted he was guilty of selling gold and icons illegally and committing “homosexual acts.” In reality, his only crime was offending the tenets of socialist realism, both in his daring surrealistic form and in his choice of subject matter. While many of the popular films of this era in Soviet cinema were largely propaganda designed to serve the ideological interests of the regime, Parajanov chose to focus on the ethnography and spirituality of the Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia. ...

The Color of Pomegranates is a poetic, dreamlike film that sought to portray the life of Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova through images inspired by his life and poetry. Born Haroutiun Sayakian, he is remembered as Sayat Nova or “king of songs.” Raised in the Georgian city of Tiflis (as was Sergei Parajanov himself), Sayat Nova performed in the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Persian languages. This brought him fame beyond the Armenian community and he was summoned to serve as Court Musician and Poet by Heracle II, the 18th- century king of Georgia. After falling in love with the king’s sister, Princess Anna, he was expelled from the court. He spent the rest of his life as a monk where he continued to write poetry and music. To the Armenian people, Sayat Nova is considered a martyr because he was executed by the invading Persians for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

Parajanov’s decision to make a film about the life of an Armenian poet and martyr was a dangerous one. Armenian national identity was not to be prioritized—it was viewed as only a part of the Soviet Union. The idea of Armenian independence and secession from the Soviet Union was still dangerous and punishable by death. The lack of a Soviet presence, or any other typical themes of the propaganda films of the time, marked The Color of Pomegranates as a subversive work.

The text of the film, the poetry of Sayat Nova, and the life of director Sergei Parajanov are all reflections of the Armenian national identity, which is itself deeply connected to the Christian faith, as they were the first “nation” in the world to adopt the religion, in the year 301. Surrounded by largely Muslim populations, they were an easy target for invasion and subjugation by their neighbors. The paradigm of Christianity, the images of the suffering of Christ and subsequent salvation—most recently exacerbated by the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey at the beginning of the last century—are at the core of Armenian individuality. ...

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