Film Reviews

The Color of Pomegranates: A Visually Poetic Movie

A symbol from the poet holding a chicken.

This is a strange film but it doesn’t feel like a weird idea for a movie. The Color of Pomegranates is mostly a silent movie with some instrumental music and singing. This feels like if the Criterion collection didn’t preserve the film would have been incredibly hard to find from word of mouth. This film is interesting to watch but hard to view without knowing a lot about the person the story it’s based on or the overall story. But that really shouldn’t discourage anyone from watching a one of a kind film that is mostly visual metaphors anyways.

This is a story about an 18th century Armenian poet and troubadour turned monk Sayat-Nova whose name translates to King of Song but can be known as Hunter of Song (sayyad-i nava). He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1712 and was skilled in writing, poetry, singing and playing the kamancheh (an Iranian bowed string instrument) and died in 1795. He wrote in Armenian, Persian, Georgian and Azerbaijani languages. Sayat-Nova was first trained to be a weaver at a young age but transitioned to the arts with poetry and music. He fought against the invasion of the Mughal Empire in India. He rose to fame as a musician for King Heracle II of Georgia court in Tiflis (now known as Tbilisi, Georgia). This is where and when he created his best known works of poetry and music until he was kicked out of the court for falling in love with the king’s sister. Sayat-Nova lived his remaining days as a monk in a monastery. He is seen as the symbol of brotherhood for Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians.

Screenshot of poet's dream. From the back: knights on a table, a chorus and lute players, man holding a swan, large woman holding a baby in purple, man holding a cage, man holding robe to a camel. From the front left: a calf, a woman in beige holding a candle and a baby, two woman knelling holding a baby. From the right: man standing on rug with plaid shroud, man with right arm extended outwards and left arm on his chest standing on a rug. Centre: Woman in black with a crown laying down extending her left arm on a bed in front of a bell.
Screenshot of poet’s dream

The movie uses active tableaux of his life which are actors in very posed positions while doing a slowly moving performance within a scene. It consists of the daily life of the poet from early childhood to death. The story interpreted visually in the poetic sense than literary and gives very little dialogue between players. At first viewing, the whole movie seems like it’s going to start with dialogue about his life or some sort of narration but doesn’t really. The opening line of the film is “I am a man whose life and soul are tortured.” The story doesn’t linger on any chapter for very long and it is told in the linear order of his life. The actors are very still yet not stiff usually blinking towards the camera with slight expressions on their faces. The characters were always distinguishable based on their interactions and costuming.

The poet as a child laying in the sun drying wet books from the storm
The poet as a child laying in the sun drying wet books from the storm

The camera is mostly still only using a variation of close up shots on the actor’s face or object they are looking at, long shots of the scene to show the full space of the stage and medium shots. But it is beautiful to watch not dull or repetitive. It makes books drying in the sun from a flood, dyeing wool, dying in a room of candles interesting and layered with meaning with some sort of significance to the character. The visuals go back and forth from tableaux to visual art relics like a reference to the past.

Chapters in order:

  • Poet’s Childhood (the child is hanging out watching the adults at work dyeing clothes or at leisure)
  • Poet’s Youth (the poet and his beloved interact)
  • Poet at the court (where he falls in love with a tsarina but gets kicked out)
  • Catholico’s death (mourning the death of an Armenian saint)
  • Poet’s dream (he returns to his childhood and mourns for his parents)
  • Old Age (poet leaves the monastery)
  • Meeting the Angel of Death

The music is always playing in the background of every scene. This might be music from Sayat-Nova himself being played on a kamancheh by a composer singing something that would usually match the scene. The meaning of the singing in the background goes over my head because I could not translate what was being said if lyrics were sung.

The lead actor is Sofiko Chiaureli who portrayed several characters in the film, for example, she was the poet and the love interest in the third act. This was inspired by Persian miniature paintings that had couples with similar features and faces in paintings. The actor’s performance was understated but never looked out of place. This is also something to notice in other viewing of the film that it’s the same actor almost throughout the whole film. The costuming and makeup help disguise the actor in the character very well.

The set and the costuming feels period correct. The actors are painted in makeup that washes them out into the background while wearing bright reds, gold and purples. Black clothing in this film looks vibrant against the beige sets. The style of filming and lighting made the supporting cast and extras look flat like an illustration from a book. The whole sets look like they were purposely built for the movie but it wasn’t. It was filmed on many historic places in multiple monasteries in Georgia and in the old city of Baku.

The text is written in Russian. It’s written with the opening first, then the action of the scene and closing narration on purple background in white, gold white text. And the poetry is written in white in front of a deep red background similar to the title cards. Just the words nothing is spoken. The title were originally in Armenian by writer Hrant Matevosyan but was re-edited by Sergei Yutkevich.

The Color of Pomegranates was directed by a Georgian born Armenian Sergei Parajnov in 1969. He was inspired to create the film has Armenian illuminated miniatures. This was once censored by the USSR State Committee for Cinematography studio board (Goskino studio) because to them it failed to educate people about the poet. The original title was changed from Sayat-Nova to The Color of Pomegranates. The name refers to one of the first visual metaphors in the film. The pomegranates are on linen cloth leaking out red juice on the cloth forming a cylinder shape with a beak then the same fruit juice is bleed underneath a dagger. The pomegranate juice is a metaphor for blood. In the original Armenian release, all references to Sayat-Nova were removed. The Goskino re-edited the movie down to 73 minutes alternating the religious content of the film.

“…wanted to create that inner dynamic that comes from inside the picture, the forms and the dramaturgy of colour. “

Sergei Parajnov

The film was first available in the West as a bootleg copy on film in the 70’s. Success for distribution rights in Armenia happened after film scholars like Herbert Marshall defended the work and protested the arrest of the director of charges of homosexual acts and selling gold and icons illegally. The charges at the time seemed like it was politically motivated because of Parajnov’s association with Ukrainian dissidents and the public criticism of various Soviet authorities.

A film like this is rare to see. Nothing was ever made like this before or will be after. For people who like modern day cinema might find this hard to watch because of how little the film has explanations, motion graphics or moves. It is also very cryptic that most people with varied attention spans may have some meanings and plot points go over their heads. This film gets easier to watch after multiple viewings.

Trailer for The Color of Pomegranates

Genre: Drama / Art House
Year: 1969
Duration: 78 minutes (Armenian release) / 73 minutes (USSR release)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This film is 4 out of 5

Screenshots from film
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