At the narrative centre of Paradjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates is a biography of the Armenian poet-troubadour Arutin Sayadan (1712– 1795), known as Sayat-Nova, or The King of Song. The film traces different events in Arutin’s life, from earlier years till his death. Paradjanov structures his film as a set of narrative tableaux that correspond to the childhood, youth, and adulthood of the famous Armenian poet. Paradjanov dedicates the first tableaux to Arutin’s life with his parents and his education at the monastery. In the next set of narrative episodes, Paradjanov depicts Arutin’s maturation, his service as a poet and musician at the court of Iraklii II of Georgia, and his unhappy love affair with Princess Anna. The final events in the poet’s life take place at the Haghpat monastery, in which he lives as a monk until his death at the hands of the Persian army.
Paradjanov’s films, including his 1969 The Colour of Pomegranates, fit well with the overall atmosphere in Soviet cinematography of the 1960s through the 1970s. Soviet cinema of the 1950s through the first half of the 1960s experienced a period of aesthetical and ideological liberation – the Thaw under Nikita Khrushchev’s government (1953–1964) – the influence of which could still be detected in the late 1960s. At that time, many filmmakers, such as Andrei Tarkovskii, Iurii Il´enko, Leonid Osyka, Tengiz Abuladze, Artavaz Peleshian and Otar Iosseliani, were developing various methods and techniques that allowed them to create their films in the tradition of poetic cinema.1 Iu. Z. Morozov argues that Paradjanov already, in his 1964 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv), had touched upon the theme of poetic worldview, represented in the main protagonist Ivanko, ‘who had a poetic perception of the world, but who was not a poet by his occupation and his public and social status’ (1991: 149). Later, in The Colour of Pomegranates, Paradjanov shifts this topic of the poet and his search for beauty and truth into the centre of his creative and aesthetic practices. In his films, Paradjanov is a poet who operates not only with words, but also with sounds and images. In this respect, The Colour of Pomegranates is a somewhat autobiographical film, and Sayat-Nova is an embodiment of Paradjanov’s spiritual, artistic, and emotional search.
With the removal of Khrushchev from the position of the First Secretary of the Communist Party in 1964, the second half of the 1960s marked the period of increased censorship and intensified state control over cultural production in the Soviet Union. Therefore, Paradjanov’s innovative, poetic cinematic language was restrained by the state. As many other Soviet directors with innovative, unorthodox cinematic vision, such as Tarkovskii, Kira Muratova, Andrei Konchalovskii and Aleksandr Askol´dov, Paradjanov became the victim of this rigid system with its attempts to renew and reinforce socialist realist principles. Before directing The Colour of Pomegranates, Paradjanov had an opportunity to experiment with narrative, visual, and aural forms in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Kiev Frescoes (Kievski freski, 1966) and Hakop Hovnatanian (1967) – the films in which he already deviated from socialist realist aesthetics and methods. All these films also represent a struggle between the cultural producer and the state and either were censored and shelved or severely edited and reached only a limited audience.2
Partially because of the intensified state control over cultural production during the Leonid Brezhnev administration (1964–1982), but mainly because of Paradjanov’s love for stylistic and visual experimentation, the cinematic language of The Colour of Pomegranates is highly metaphorical, even allegorical. Paradjanov warns his viewers about the allegorical nature of his film already in the opening scene for ‘the film uses the symbolism and allegories specific to the tradition of Medieval Armenian poet-troubadours (Ashougs)’. 3 Even though Paradjanov structures the events in the poet’s life in chronological order, it may be difficult for viewers to follow the story, because the traditional linear narrative is constantly interrupted by symbolic imagery and intertitles with Sayat-Nova’s poetry. The deciphering of allegorical meanings is also complicated by the fact that the original version of The Colour of Pomegranates was censored by the state, and another Soviet director, Sergei Iutkevich, revised and reorganised Paradjanov’s film, as instructed by the film studio administration.4
Paradjanov leads his viewers to allegories by skilfully weaving various metaphors, symbols, repetitions, and allusions into the narrative, visual, and aural texture of the film. The multilayered quality of The Colour of Pomegranates creates additional complexity of meaning. Paradjanov juxtaposes shots of Armenian homes, monasteries, and the royal court with images of open books, paintings, Orthodox icons, animals, pomegranates, dying fish, seashells, laces, bread, soil, and a traditional Armenian music instrument – the kamancha. He creates a cinematic poem by adding the rhythmic, repetitive sounds of church bells, rain, grape stomping, and pieces of mother-of-pearl falling on the poet’s kamancha, and continuous, sometimes monotonous, prayers, songs, and poems. Complimented by diegetic and non-diegetic sound and music, the setting and the objects on the screen function as a meter and a rhythm and build a chain of meanings, at the centre of which is the process of the poet’s self-realisation, his awakening as a sexual being, the discovery and shaping of his artistic and spiritual identity.
In addition to the sound and the setting, colour plays an essential role in Paradjanov’s film and becomes an independent character both of narrative and visual structures of The Colour of Pomegranates. Three colours – red, black, and white – dominate the screen and function as signifiers for a number of concepts, important for Paradjanov. The film studio administrators’ choice to rename Paradjanov’s film from SayatNova to The Colour of Pomegranates was dictated by their inability to understand the director’s stylistic approach to creating a biopic, but, at the same time, was not entirely accidental and inaccurate.5 Paradjanov emphasises the importance of the colour red and already introduces it in the opening scene: the shots of red pomegranates and a knife with blood, juxtaposed in a rhythmic montage with an open book of Sayat-Nova’s poetry, point to the special connection between these images. They represent the poet’s emotional and spiritual sufferings as a part of the creative process and his special status as a martyr. The intertitles with his poems support this statement: ‘I am the man whose life and soul are tortured’. The red colour returns as a leitmotif of Sayat-Nova’s life and art throughout the rest of the film. It recurs as the colour of Armenian national rugs, in the clothes of little Arutin, in nuns’ clothes, as the blood of sacrificed roosters, and as red laces on the young lovers’ faces. The colour red, on the one hand, symbolises life and libidinal energy; on the other hand, it functions as a signifier of blood, pain, and suffering. Paradjanov uses the beginning of SayatNova’s life as a little boy as a starting point of his narrative and ends The Colour of Pomegranates with the poet’s death. Everything else – the spiritual, physical, and sexual maturation of the main protagonist – happens between these two main points of Sayat-Nova’s hagiography. Paradjanov uses the white and the black colours as a contrast to the colour red and as markers of transformation. The poet and his beloved Princess Anna exchange a white flower and white laces as a symbol of their innocent love. After the lovers from two different social strata transgress and their pure, platonic relationship turns into a passionate, physical attraction without any future, the objects and settings around them turn red. After overcoming his secular desires and lust, and dedicating his life to poetry, music, and later to God, Sayat-Nova wears the black robe of the monk and obtains the status of martyr for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. As other symbols of pure faith in the film – white boy-angels and a white nun, uncorrupted by mundane passions – the poet dies in white clothes.
Paradjanov made The Colour of Pomegranates in his home country – Armenia – after the Soviet government forbade his film Kiev Frescos, which he was making at the Dovzhenko film studio in Kiev. After a decade of making films in Ukraine, Paradjanov finally had an opportunity to go back to his ethnic roots and scrutinise his parents’ culture. Therefore, The Colour of Pomegranates combines the individual and the national; on the one hand, it thoroughly explores the psychological, emotional, and spiritual maturation of Sayat-Nova and, on the other, it offers a detailed ethnographic examination of the everyday life in rural Armenia. Similarly to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors that explores Hutsul traditions in the Carpathian Mountains, their language, and commonplace culture, The Colour of Pomegranates focuses on the mundane part of Armenian life in the eighteenth century, such as cooking, doing laundry, taking baths, and doing house chores. Paradjanov’s ethnographic study also includes old Armenian traditions and rituals, such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, national costumes, architecture, music, and poetry. Through a rhythmic montage, a contrast of colours, a juxtaposition of light and shadows, he poeticises and stylises the routine aspects of Armenian everyday culture, thus, transmuting them into magical, almost fairytale-like narratives.
However, it is difficult to assign Paradjanov to one specific national film tradition – he rather belongs to the group of cultural producers who supersede the boundaries of national cinema and create transnational cinematic texts. Paradjanov’s own transnational background helped him to easily cross the borders between different national traditions: he was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, studied in Moscow at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, and made his films in Ukraine and Armenia. Prior to and after The Colour of Pomegranates, Paradjanov made a number of films, in which he created a detailed study of various ethnic cultures: Moldovan culture in Andriesh (1955),6 the Hutsul groups in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Armenian art in Hakop Hovnatanian, Georgian folk legends in The Legend of Suram Fortress (Ambavi suramis tsikhisa, 1984) and Azerbaijan folklore in Ashik Kerib (1988).7 Even the choice of the protagonist for The Colour of Pomegranates – a poet who wrote his poetry in Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani – once again emphasises the transnational, or even universal, status of an artist. This film, as many other Paradjanov’s films, glorifies the creative power of art through allegorical imagery and national music, architecture, and poetry. In an interview, Paradjanov explains the main idea of the film: ‘And then I tried to depict the art in life, and not life in the art. Conversely, I wanted that the art was reflected in the life’ (Fomin 2006: 149). As suggested by The Colour of Pomegranates, any art, whether it is literary, visual, or performing, should serve as a spiritual path to the transcendental in every human’s life.
1. Poetic cinema was not a new phenomenon during the Khrushchev years, but was rather a return to the early Soviet cinema of the 1920s–1930s, exemplified by Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s films.
2. The administration of the Dovzhenko film studio stopped the pre-production process of Kiev Frescos, and only about 15 minutes are available for viewing nowadays.
3. After the first review of the film, the studio administration requested that Paradjanov add some explanatory intertitles. Later, Iutkevich cut the original version into pieces, restructured them, and added intertitles before each narrative vignette. For more details on Iutkevich’s revisions of Paradjanov’s film, see Fomin 2006: 153–61.
4. The original version – the ‘director’s cut’ – was lost, and the pre-production materials were discovered in a very poor condition in the 1990s. This version of The Colour of Pomegranates was initially completed by Paradjanov in 1969 and was shown to a limited audience at the film studio, before Iutkevich’s drastic editing.
5. For the official film studio recommendations on changing Paradjanov’s film, see Valerii Fomin (ed.), ‘Polka’: Dokumenty. Svidetel´stva. Kommentarii, pp. 133–61.
6. He co-directed this film with a Ukrainian filmmaker, Iakov Bazel´ian.
7. Ashik Kerib is based on the poetry of famous Russian poet and writer, Mikhail Lermontov, which adds another transnational layer to Paradjanov’s cinematic inheritance.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USSR. Production Company: Armenfilm. Director: Sergo Paradjanov. Screenwriter: Sergo Paradjanov. Cinematographer: Suren Shakhbazian. Music: Tigran Mansurian, Sergo Paradjanov. Editors: Sergo Paradjanov, M. Ponomarenko, Sergei Iutkevich. Cast: Sofiko Chiaureli (Poet as a Youth, Anna, the nun, Angel of Resurrection, the pantomime actress, the pantomime actor, Poet’s muse), Melkon Meliakain (Poet as a child), Medeia Dzhaparidze (Poet’s mother), Spartak Bagashvili (Poet’s father), Avet Avetisian (Avet-aga) Hovhannes Minasian (Prince), Onik Minasian (Prince).]
Levon Hm. Abrahamian, ‘Towards a Poetics of Parajanov’s Cinema’, Armenian Review, Vols. 47.3–4/48.1–2, 2001–2002, pp. 67–91.
Valerii Fomin, ‘Tsvet granata’, in ‘Polka’: Dokument, svidetel’stva, kommentarii, Issue 3, ed. Valerii Fomin, Moscow, Materik, 2006, pp. 132–61.
Geiorgi Gvakharia, ‘Sergei Parajanov’s Ecumenical Vision’, Armenian Review, Vols. 47.3–4/48.1– 2, 2001–2002, pp. 93–104.
Iu. Z. Morozov, ‘Plastika – iazyk kinopoezii’ in Kinovedcheskie zapiski, Vol. 11, 1991, pp. 149–56.
Karla Oeler, ‘Nran Guyne/The Colour of Pomegranates’, in Birgit Beumers (ed.), The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, London and New York, Wallflower Press, 2007, pp. 139–50.
James Steffen, ‘From Sayat Nova to The Color of Pomegranates: notes on the production and censorship of Parajanov’s film’, Armenian Review, Vols. 47.3–4/48.1–2, 2001–2002, pp. 105–47.
James Steffen (ed.), Sergei Parajanov, special edition of Armenian Review, Vols. 47.3–4/48.1–2, 2001– 2002.
James Steffen, ‘Parajanov’s Playful Poetics: On the “Director’s Cut” of The Color of Pomegranates’, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 47, No. 4, Winter 1995–96, pp. 17–32.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.