Joanne Nucho on The Color of Pomegranates
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.
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.
So what is the color of pomegranates? As the film opens,
we see thorns intercut with images of pomegranates soaking
a white cloth with their juice, a deep blood red. Then
we see a dagger resting upon this same, stained cloth.
A voice reads from the poetry of Sayat Nova: “I am a
man whose soul is tormented.” In Armenian mythology,
the pomegranate was a symbol of fertility, literally
fruitfulness—it is said that a ripe pomegranate contains
365 seeds, one for each day of the year. The thorns
are those of the crown that Christ wore as he suffered
on the cross. The two are inseparable, bound closely
by the image of bloodshed, the inevitable fate of the
Armenian people—here there is only sacrifice and suffering.
Later in the film a priest wearing the traditional black
garb of the Armenian apostolic church utters “heaven
has deemed that sorrow be our lot.” With the camera
set at a distance, the monks gather before him, also
cloaked in black, shroud-like robes fall on their knees.
Everywhere there is death, darkness, disaster—and yet,
a feeling that the biggest disaster, the ultimate catastrophe
is still to come.
The inescapable trappings
of faith are carried in the wandering heavy heart of
the artist, the troubadour. The film depicts Sayat Nova’s
childhood in Tiflis through a series of disconnected,
surreal images. A priest gives the young boy books to
read, telling him that the world is nothing without
the written word, all would be lost in ignorance without
it. The boy carries the weighty books, (bibles, prayer
books) to the roof of a stone church building. He lies,
arms outstretched, Christ-like, as the pages flutter
open, the sounds of paper flapping in the wind. The
artist accepts his fate, his responsibility to the knowledge
bestowed upon him. Hereafter, he must attempt to keep
a record of this wisdom, but also to pass it along as
a precious heirloom, to maintain it at all costs. This
is his immortal faith, his sacrifice, which he accepts
as more important than his own mortal being, for one
day he will pay for his faith with his life.
The sacrifice, of course, of Sayat Nova is similar to
the one that Parajanov had to make when he refused to
renounce or compromise his spiritual vision. The son
of Armenian genocide survivors, Parajanov felt first-hand
the responsibility he carried with him as an artist.
Art renders immortal those who were lost; memory is
the only thing that remains of both a glorious history
and a catastrophic end. He explains his commitment to
Armenian culture and faith best in an interview:
I owe Armenia a cinematographic confession. A sort
of personal bible: my mother, my father, my childhood,
my imprisonment. My vision of dreams... the ghosts seek
shelter with me, their living heir. But I can’t take
them in. I have to tell the police that they’re staying
with me. They know neither electricity nor insurance
agents. They know no evil. They want to stay with me.
I have to prove I love them.
The Color of Pomegranates
is a testament to his love of his family, and his culture.
It is a mourning of the passing of time, of the destruction
of an ancient society and tradition, but it is also
a celebration of beauty. The camera is usually stationary,
the actors a moving tableau before it, striking poses
as though threads in an enchanting woven Persian tapestry
or an ancient biblical illustration. The costumes are
glorious embroidered robes, and the actors dance and
move within them slowly, as though moving underwater.
Actual stone monasteries and churches in Armenia serve
as backdrops, surrounded by green hills, wide-open spaces,
deep skies. These dances are punctuated by the sound
of the violin-like kemenche (the instrument used by
Sayat Nova) and the words of his poems, often morose
and full of longing.
Finally, the poet is sacrificed, he kneels on the floor
of the church, wearing white, arms outstretched, the
red blood staining his robe a reminder of the film’s
opening shots. We see no Persian soldiers, no outright
violence committed against him. He kneels alone and
this sacrifice is seen as a willing one. In keeping
with the imagery of Christianity, the “king of songs”
accepts his fate just as Christ allowed himself to be
crucified. We have come full circle, the beginning and
the end are the same, and death is the inevitable price
to pay for one’s faith. The words that Parajanov chooses
to extract from Sayat Nova’s poetry explain his feelings
about this sacrifice.
my songs alone will not desert me…
The fate of the poet is not as important as the poems
themselves, because they serve to memorialize and to
honor the faith and lives of those who came before.
Parajanov knew that he would be condemned for his films,
but he was willing to sacrifice his safety to realize
on film the traditions and beauty of his people. Even
after his release, Parajanov was committed to his vision,
creating more surreal, ethnographic films like Ashik
Kerib, a retelling of a Georgian folk-tale. Clearly
there was much pleasure in these stories and images
for Parajanov, but a huge part of the creative process
here is the paradigm of sacrifice. The suffering of
the artist seems essential to the meaning of this film,
it could not have been made in any other way. The motivation
of The Color of Pomegranates seems best described
by the life and poetry of Sayat Nova himself:
a poet dies but his muse is immortal.