The Colour of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova) (1968)

The Colour of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova) first published by Little White Lies

“Dear viewer, don’t seek in this film the biography of Sayat Nova, the great Armenian poet of the eighteenth century,” states the text introduction to the Russian version of Sergei Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova, retitled The Colour of Pomegranates and re-edited (by Russian director Sergei Yutkevich) so that its episodic scenes were now reorganised into something approximating a chronological order, and with some (although by no means all) of the more overtly sexual symbolism removed. “We were only striving to convey, by means of cinema, the pictorial world of that poetry…”

Despite these changes made to Paradjanov’s film, it would still be banned by the Soviets for some time, presumably because its elusive, often impenetrable imagery and its focus on religious iconography were not deemed rational enough to meet the strict principles of socialist realism. Even the original version of the film, now buried in an archive, had Armenian intertitles and expositional text added (not, it should be said, by Paradjanov) to modulate its viewers’ interpretation, and to impose a certain order and direction onto Paradjanov’s kaleidoscopic fever dream.

It is entirely possible, if also unfairly reductive, to view The Colour of Pomegranates as just that – a ready-made headtrip for the nascent psychedelic set who would soon be deriving similar kicks from the colourfully carnivalesque works of Alejandro Jodorowsky and his ilk on the Midnight Movie circuit.

After all, with its stylised tableau-like mise-en-scène, its dreamlike visuals (and actual dream sequences), its oversaturated symbology, and its disorienting score (by Tigran Mansuryan, merging traditional Armenian instrumentation with Pierre Henri-style musique concrète), Paradjanov’s film offers the sort of hallucinatory filmgoing experience beloved of dope and acid-heads, and will certainly satisfy on a purely aesthetic level.

Indeed, there is an immense, even overwhelming beauty to the way Surek Shakhbazyan’s unmoving camera frames humans, animals and objects, ensuring that virtually any still from the film would not be out of place on display in a gallery for classical, or indeed modern, art.

Yet if The Colour of Pomegranates plays itself out as a series of richly detailed, emblematic illustrations – not unlike the illuminated miniatures that, in an early scene, the poet boy is seen flipping through in bibles laid out to dry on the monastery roof – nonetheless the film is not just some mad collection of pretty pictures, but a poetic and ethnographic evocation of Armenian religion, culture and society, told through the prism of the nation’s most celebrated troubadour and his songs.

For this is an impressionistic, elliptical account of key events in the life of Harutiun Sayatian (later dubbed Sayat Nova, Persian for ‘King of Songs’): his childhood upbringing in a Tblisi monastery, his work as a weaver and wool dyer, the emergence of his musical talent, his elevation to the court of the King of Georgia as royal poet, his illicit love affair with the King’s sister Anna, his retreat to monastery life, and his eventual martyrdom at the hand of Persian invaders – although equal attention is paid to his dreams and visions, while some aspects of his life (including a marriage that bore him four children) are thoroughly elided.

The film spans Sayat Nova’s life from childhood to death, with four different actors portraying his different ages – but recurrent motifs and images furnish a network of suggestive continuities and symmetries, while the extraordinary actress Sofiko Chiaureli is a constant presence, playing not only Sayat Nova’s muse, and Anna, and the Angel of the Resurrection, but also the poet himself as a young man. As time collapses in Sayat Nova’s fantasy-fuelled memory, sexual and religious passions become conflated in an almost Buñuelian manner.

For this is a film where the carnal and the spiritual, the earthly and the cosmic, all come to occupy the same theatricalised space, and the life of one man becomes the life of all humankind, as well as the psychogeography of a nation. The Colour of Pomegranates is exquisite, mesmerising, obscurantist (although the excellent extras on Second Sight’s DVD help unpack some of the more inscrutable images) and often surreal – but, most importantly, it is unique. If Sayat Nova was Armenia’s best known bard, Paradjanov was to prove its greatest audiovisual poet.

© Anton Bitel