The Color of Pomegranates is a breathtaking and unforgettable masterpiece by Armenian director, Sergei Parajanov. Ostensibly, the film is a biopic of the 18th-century troubadour, Sayat-Nova. However, more than that, The Color of Pomegranates is a completely unique work that creates a language of cinema all of its own.
The film is split into chapters that depict different stages of Sayat-Nova’s life. Title cards frame the chapters as Childhood, Youth, Prince’s Court, The Monastery, The Dream, Old Age, The Angel of Death, and Death.
However, if you try to closely follow the plot, you’ll most likely become quite confused. And that’s ok. Instead, try to let yourself be drawn into and carried along by the impressionistic world that Parajanov has created.
In The Color of Pomegranates, the story – or lack thereof – doesn’t matter. What’s most important is the cinematic poetry Parajanov creates. Instead of dialogue, narration, and plot, Parajnov uses images and sounds to retell Sayat Nova’s life as if it were retold by him himself.
While what you see on screen is abstract, poetic, and intangibly beautiful, there’s also something primitive about The Color of Pomegranates. Parajanov creates spatial constructions that seem out of place to our eye of today. The way characters are arranged often flattens them, as if they were on a Russian Orthodox icon or a Persian illuminated miniature. What’s more, there’s hardly any camera movement in the film at all. And so, though there are many extremely animated scenes, without camera movement they almost seem frozen.
But it’s this strange, primitive-seeming filmmaking that makes The Color of Pomegranates so sophisticated and subversive. Parajanov’s work is sophisticated because no other film has come close to achieving this unique language. And it’s subversive because it completely goes against the retightening strictures of Socialist Realism Soviet cultural authorities were enforcing at the time.
Speaking of subversion, The Color of Pomegranates faced official backlash in a number of other areas.
With every gorgeous frame of traditional Armenian dress and culture, the film celebrated the survival of Armenian culture and looked to revive its splendor. There were also more direct images of this. For example, the famous pomegranate juice stain forms the shape of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. Later, dyers treat wool with the colors of the Armenian flag.
More than just promoting an Armenian identity, the film also propounds the existence of a Caucasian identity and culture separate from that of the Soviet Union. We see this from the various regional languages employed.
Gender and queer politics also come up in the movie, to the displeasure of censors. Mixing the masculine with the feminine, the actress, Sofiko Chiaureli plays five roles, male and female. Meanwhile, the film makes allusions via images and symbols to Sayat Nova’s homosexuality.