This one-of-a-kind Soviet film portrays the life of an 18th century Armenian poet not through narrative, but through a succession of brilliant symbolic tableaux.
I’ve spoken on this show before about the Armenian-born Soviet filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, who directed the groundbreaking film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in 1964. The unexpected international success of that film pushed him into prominence, and he began to get into trouble with authorities, signing protests against the persecution of Ukrainian intellectuals, and refusing to testify against a dissident colleague. In 1969, he was finally allowed to make another film. It’s called The Color of Pomegranates, and it portrays the life of 18th century Armenian poet Aruthin Sayadin.
Trained as a weaver, Sayadin became a poet and minstrel at the court of the King of Georgia. He fell in love with the king’s sister, and was banished to a monastery, where he gradually rose to become the archbishop of Tblisi. His life ended in martyrdom when he was killed on the steps of his cathedral by the invading Persians after refusing to renounce his faith.
As if to disprove the idea that everything that could be done in film had already been done, Paradjanov chose not to relate a narrative of the poet’s objective life story, but to depict the evolution of the poet’s soul through a series of intense, dreamlike tableaux. The only spoken words are occasional voice-over excerpts from the poet’s writings. Figures from his life pose against elaborate artificial backdrops, holding objects with symbolic meaning from Armenian art and mythology. In the background other figures move in measured and repetitive actions such as, in the earlier childhood sections, the tossing of a ball. We see the faces either in full as they look straight ahead, remarkably beautiful and expressive in their stillness, or in side profile, as in traditional Orthodox iconography. All the while, various types of Armenian music are heard, ceremonial and otherwise, the entire effect being almost indescribable, like an occult spiritual initiation on film. The picture’s color is radiant almost beyond belief, with the sections on Sayadin’s apprenticeship to a carpet weaver full of shimmering blues, yellows and reds, and the later sections when he joins the monastery exploring more muted tones.
I would recommend that you come to this film with a certain mental preparation. Paradjanov wanted to bring the viewer to a different state of consciousness, to evoke a sense of love for creation, grief for our suffering and mortality, and beyond that, a meditative awareness of spirit, the particulars of life condensed into nonverbal symbol, and imprinted on the mind. The Color of Pomegranates is truly one of a kind, not really a narrative film at all, more like a ballad or a rite. It might seem odd to say this, but I’m convinced that one should approach the film with seriousness and reverence, and watch it without interruption if possible. Let the experience soak into you gently, like dye into a fabric.