Guest reviewer Lee Broughton assesses the Armenian director Sergei Parajanov’s poetic and metaphor-filled biopic about his countryman Sayat Nova, the Armenian poet-troubadour. This new disc edition offers both versions of the picture, Parajanov’s original and the Soviet-approved version cut by seven minutes. As we learn, if a Soviet film director found favor internationally, they often landed in trouble back home.
The Colour of Pomegranates
Region B Blu-ray
Second Sight (UK)
1969 / Color / 1.33 flat full frame / 79 min. / Sayat Nova, Nran Guyne / Street Date, 19 Feb 2018 / £29.99
Starring: Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Alekyan, Vilen Galstyan, Gogi Gegechkori, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Japaridze, Hovhannes Minasyan.
Cinematography: Suren Shakhbazyan
Film Editor: Marfa Ponomarenko
Production Designer: Stepan Andranikyan
Original Music: Tigran Mansuryan
Written and Directed by Sergei Parajanov
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates is a film with a troubled release history. The Russian censor ruled that Parajanov’s initial cut of the film did not properly reflect Sayat Nova’s life or fulfil its intended educational function and the feature risked being shelved. A compromise was arrived at which resulted in Parajanov preparing a slightly more censor friendly version of the show that ran to 79- minutes. This director approved version was briefly released in Armenia only in 1969. In 1970 the Russian director Sergei Yutkevich re-edited the film further and the Russian censor deemed that his 72- minute version was acceptable enough to be screened in both the wider Soviet bloc and the rest of the world. Yutkevich’s cut of the film is the version that was used for previous home video editions of the show. Second Sight’s new Region B Blu-ray box set presents major restorations of both cuts of the film.
It’s not too hard to imagine the reaction of the Russian censor when Sergei Parajanov (a Georgian filmmaker of Armenian descent) presented his initial cut of what was then titled Sayat Nova. At the time all film production in the Soviet bloc was overseen by the state and every film produced was expected to conform to the narrative and formal aesthetics of Socialist Realism: clearly told stories that in some way expressed ideas that supported the ideological outlook and general worldview of the state while also confirming the important roles that regular citizens and cultural heroes had played in the creation — and the ongoing maintenance — of the state. Nikita Khrushchev had allowed an element of liberalization to take place within the Russian arts scenes during the late 1950s but many of the country’s filmmakers continued to adhere to the basic principles of Socialist Realism until well into the 1970s in order to ensure that their films were released.
Sayat Nova did feature a cultural hero of sorts, the eponymous Armenian poet-troubadour who had lived during the eighteenth century. But, as the film’s front title card indicates, Parajanov was more concerned with recreating a representation of the poet-troubadour’s inner world at different key points in his life as opposed to telling his life story in a literal way. Hence the show’s over-stylized aesthetics — and its narrative’s lack of basic signposting — represented a complete break with Socialist Realism. Indeed, the poetic symbolism and metaphors that Parajanov used in place of narrative signposting meant that the meaning of each of the film’s scenes was ambiguous and open to personal interpretation and that simply would not do for the Russian censor.
Parajanov’s slightly more censor-friendly re-cut was retitled Nran Guyne / The Colour of Pomegranates and given a limited release in Armenia only in 1969. This version of the film, which became known as the ‘Armenian’ version, was superseded by Sergei Yutkevich’s shorter re-edit (known as the ‘Russian’ version) which was released more widely in the Soviet bloc and the rest of the world in 1970. Yutkevich wanted Parajanov’s work to find an audience but in order for it to do so he had to insert new inter-titles which featured text that explained the narrative in a little more detail and which broke Sayat Nova’s life down into fully signposted chapters. Yutkevich also cut some sequences that were still deemed to be controversial while also editing the story into a more obviously linear affair.
My review and rating of the film is based on a viewing of the restored longer ‘Armenian’ version from 1969. The lack of narrative signposting that troubled the Russian censor is still in evidence for those who don’t have the cultural or historical knowledge to fill in the gaps. Thankfully, the raft of very detailed and informative extra features that are included here are on hand to grant us much of the required knowledge needed to fully appreciate Parajanov’s striking film. Of course this knowledge is gained after the fact since it’s standard procedure to view the main feature before the extras for fear of encountering spoilers.
The narrative that I perceived was thus. The young Sayat Nova (Melkon Alekyan) learns the value of books and words on the day that the local monastery’s library is flooded during a storm. He’s a sensitive but somewhat rebellious lad and his inquisitive nature allows him to eagerly absorb knowledge of local culture and social mores. As a young poet-troubadour (Sofiko Chiaureli) he meets and romances the love of his life (Sofiko Chiaureli, again) but something is lacking in their relationship and he seeks enlightenment by enrolling as a monk in a monastery. As a monk (Vilen Galstyen) he carries out a multitude of daily duties that eventually lead him to reflect upon his past life. He leaves the monastery and, as an older man (Giorgi Gegechkori), prepares for his own death.
It’s a fair enough account of a man’s life on one level but if the film is watched with the contextual information gleaned from the release’s extra features it becomes apparent just how much detail we’re missing. For example, there are lots of bits of business relating to carpets in the early section of the film but it’s never really made clear that this is indicative of the fact that Sayat Nova’s family were carpet weavers by trade. Similarly, the love of Sayat Nova’s life is actually Princess Ana and the grand milieu that the couple are seen within is the royal court but the film doesn’t provide information to this effect. Sayat Nova and Princess Ana were by all accounts very similar looking but the film doesn’t inform us of this fact directly — Parajanov simply has an androgynous actress play both roles. Before Sayat Nova leaves the monastery we see two monks talking behind his back but we are not privy to what they are saying. It turns out that the original script indicates that they were talking about a new young poet-troubadour who was wowing the locality and their words prompt Sayat Nova to leave the monastery in order to see him perform.
So Parajanov’s decision to withhold much contextual and narrative information can be a little frustrating unless you’re prepared to kind of go with the flow. Which is actually a relatively easy option because — at an audio-visual level — The Colour of Pomegranates is a quite incredible experience for most of its running time. Much of the film was shot on location in surviving period monasteries and historically significant locales and Parajanov was able to use actual historical artefacts that were borrowed from the Armenian Church. The show’s art direction and costume design work is really quite exquisite and the way that everything is staged remains impressive for the most part. Parajanov uses a locked down and static camera for virtually every shot of the film and a good number of these shots are composed as tableaux that draw upon the aesthetics of medieval Persian miniature paintings.
The effect is completed by Parajanov’s use of lighting and blocking strategies that combine with the often stylized mise-en-scene in order to flatten out any sense of depth that the frame might hold. In addition, Parajanov favours gentle mime, nuanced movements and enigmatic symbols and metaphors over dialogue. Atmosphere is provided by a wide array of music and verse, voiceovers that offer quotes from the Bible and dubbed sound effects that sometimes cause a purposeful disjuncture between the audio and the visuals. Although the soundtrack is busy and expertly utilized there are moments where watching The Colour of Pomegranates produces an experience that is similar to that of watching a silent film. Indeed, the use of jump cuts that result in ‘magic’ edits (see the scene where a donkey suddenly changes colour) bring to mind the work of George Melies, as does the pantomime stage prop-like nature of the show’s physical special effects.
Parajanov’s approach to editing remains interesting even when a ‘magic’ edit isn’t being initiated. This is particularly so during the portion of the film that details the youthful Sayat Nova’s affair with Princess Ana. Because both characters are played by Sofiko Chiaureli, they never appear in the same shot together. Cutting from one character to another within the same location allows Parajanov to make subtle changes to the mise-en-scene of his long shots. For example, the direction that a suspended ornamental cherub is spinning in changes from shot to shot seemingly depending upon which character is featured and their state of mind.
The static nature of Parajanov’s shots and set-ups also allows us to spot repeated motifs, symbolism and blocking strategies with relative ease. And some novel efforts to introduce movement into the static shots — often revolving around people or objects swaying from side to side like pendulums or objects like the ornamental cherub spinning in mid air — make for interesting and sometimes surreal viewing. Excellent acting — even if some might argue that it actually amounts to miming rather than acting much of the time — helps to keep the viewer interested in the characters but a conventional emotional connection with them is lacking much of the time.
In many sections of the film the characters face the camera full on and they often break the fourth wall by staring directly into the camera’s lens in silent contemplation. Referencing Bertolt Brecht’s work on the distanciation effect must be passé these days as I don’t think that I heard the influential playwright’s name mentioned once in the hours of extra features that are present here. But the way that Parajanov pointedly makes the artifice of his filmmaking technique so obvious, the film’s mannered acting styles, the presence of actors in multiple roles, the periodic dislocation between the show’s sound and its visuals, the use of jump cuts and the breaking of the fourth wall are all precisely the kind of elements that usually suggest a Brechtian intent on a film director’s part. And this might also explain the lack of emotional connection experienced when viewing the film.
It’s hard to think of any other films that might be compared to The Colour of Pomegranates as points of reference. In terms of ‘magic’ edits, there’s the work of George Méliès and perhaps other silent filmmakers as previously noted. Some of the film’s more surreal visuals, wilder costumes and mystical religious imagery do vaguely bring to mind the cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Similarly, the odd tableaux and the occasional surreal visual element found in Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s The Mansion of Madness (1972) seem to echo aspects of Parajanov’s film. And some of the film’s more frenzied musical and religious moments have an atmosphere and an intensity that is similar to that of corresponding scenes found in Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (1964).
A couple of moments in The Colour of Pomegranates actually made me think of the iconic long shot of David Bowie’s Pierrot clown and the four strangely-dressed New Romantic characters who face the camera with him and perform mannered movements while stood in front of a bulldozer in the video for Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Parajanov’s pointed and ethnographic use of an assortment of culturally specific musical pieces and songs can perhaps be compared to Ritwik Ghatak’s innovative approach in The Cloud-Capped Star (1960).
Either way, Parajanov can be remembered as a stylistic innovator and The Colour of Pomegranates can be acknowledged to be a quite remarkable show that just falls short of receiving an excellent rating. There’s much to admire in Parajanov’s abstract approach here and I fully understand that we sometimes need to view some artistic world cinema films with a sense of critical distance and emotional detachment. That viewing strategy works just fine some of the time when watching The Colour of Pomegranates. But it strikes me that the story of Sayat Nova presented here — and further expounded upon in the extra features — is one that would have benefitted from Parajanov allowing the casual or uninformed viewer to form a slightly more tangible emotional investment in its lead character, his life’s journey and his subsequent demise.
Parajanov seems to be particularly determined to put some emotional distance between the viewer and his text at the film’s end. The imagery employed serves as a symbolic link to an earlier episode from Sayat Nova’s childhood when he refused to be ceremoniously marked by sacrificial blood. But the director’s decision to include images of animals suffering for artistic effect in the shot that details the poet-troubadour’s death has an obvious additional effect. Recognition of the animals’ real suffering makes it impossible for a conventional emotional response to be generated in relation to Sayat Nova’s staged passing.
Second Sight’s UK Region B Blu-ray two disc box set of The Colour of Pomegranates has been assembled with much care and attention. A 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative supplied by Gosfilmofond of Russia was complimented by a scan of a longer 35mm dupe negative held by the National Cinema Centre of Armenia in order for both versions of the film to be extensively restored. It’s reported that Parajanov was not always provided with the best quality film stock for this shoot so there are some inherited fluctuations in colour strength and the like here. But while the picture quality dips marginally for those sections of the restored ‘Armenian’ version that necessarily utilised brief sections of the dupe negative, both cuts of the film essentially sport excellent picture and sound quality.
The many extra features that are included in this two disc box set are essential when it comes to gaining insight into the cultural complexities of Parajanov’s film. Indeed, having the sources of the music, verses and quotes that are used in the film and the significance of the different languages that they are spoken or sung in pointed out makes for a genuinely educational experience. James Steffen’s pop-up text commentary for the ‘Armenian’ version of the film helpfully allows us to listen to the songs, music and languages while reading about their contextual meaning. Levon Abrahamian worked on the film as a student and he’s also a cultural anthropologist so he is able to provide useful historical detail about Sayat Nova’s life and the film’s production in his audio commentary on the ‘Russian’ version.
The World is a Window (2011, 76 min.) by Daniel Bird is a wide-ranging documentary that features interesting interviews with a number of the film’s personnel (including an archival interview with actress Sofiko Chiaureli) and cultural commentators who discuss Parajanov’s artistic development and the making of the film. Pomegranates Rediscovered (2017, 9 min.) features Cecilia Cenciarelli of the Cineteca di Bologna who provides details regarding the restoration processes that the show underwent. In Free Parajanov! (2017, 12 min.) the film critic Tony Rayns gives an account of attending a screening of the film in the UK during the early 1970s which was part of an ongoing campaign to have the now adjudged to be dissident Parajanov released from prison.
Memories About ‘Sayat Nova’ (2006, 32 min.) by Levon Grigoryan is a fascinating collage of sequences and shots that were cut from the initial edit of the film in order to produce the ‘Armenian’ version of The Colour of Pomegranates. This quite startling footage is taken from a video source and it’s indicated that the related working negative did not survive. The featurette plays like a digest version of the film at times and the inclusion of this additional footage would have undoubtedly made The Colour of Pomegranates’ content much more poignant. Historians have suggested that Sayat Nova died fighting invaders and striking footage of an invading army and the destruction that they cause features amongst the cut sequences. This footage also sports a voiceover that helpfully explains many aspects of the film’s narrative in detail.
Parajanov: A Requiem (1994, 60 min.) by Ron Holloway boasts interviews with Parajanov which cover a wide variety of topics and footage of him attending a retrospective workshop at the Munich Film Festival. In Poetry, Pomegranates and Parajanov (2017, 9 min.) Daniel Bird charts the development of Parajanov’s personal style and discusses the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky on Parajanov’s work. Kyev Frescoes (1966, 14 min.) is a short film that Parajanov assembled from screen test footage that he shot for a feature about the twentieth anniversary of the liberation of Kiev that never went into production. It’s a visually striking short in which it’s possible to see the director experimenting with the kind of stylistic and poetic approaches that he would employ in The Colour of Pomegranates. This short film features a pop up text commentary by Daniel Bird.
Note: This limited edition two disc set comes in a card sleeve which also houses a 120 page book. The card sleeve and the book were not supplied for review.
Savant note: The Color of Pomegranates is also being released by Criterion in Region A on April 17, with a different set of extras, including two documentaries about the filmmaker and poet on which the film is based.
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
The Colour of Pomegranates
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: text commentary by James Steffen (‘Armenian’ version), audio commentary by Levon Abrahamian (‘Russian’ version), featurettes The World is a Window, Pomegranates Rediscovered, Free Parajanov!, Memories About ‘Sayat Nova’, Parajanov: A Requiem, Poetry, Pomegranates and Parajanov, Kyev Frescoes and a 120 page book.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case in a card sleeve
Reviewed: March 10, 2018
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