An ancient book in an unfamiliar script; a spoken line of verse, translated as “I am the man whose life and soul are torment”; three pomegranates, bleeding their crimson juice onto white muslin. The opening of The Color of Pomegranates warns us that this life story of the eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”) will not be a conventional one but rather an exploration of his “inner world . . . his passions and torments,” through symbols drawn from medieval Armenian culture and Christianity, along with director Sergei Parajanov’s own imagination. And these first moments of the film offer some of the most palpably rich imagery ever brought to the screen. A steel dagger also bleeds onto white cloth; a foot crushes grapes on an inscribed stone tablet; and live fish wriggle frantically between two loaves of bread, in what may be a rugged allusion to the biblical miracle.
The impact of these visions, which seem to channel the language of Western poetic film rather than anything from the Soviet canon before 1969, when The Color of Pomegranates was released, is unforgettable. And as the film continues into a first section that deals with the poet’s youth, the images become even more sensuous and surreal. Books are pressed until water flows from them, built into tottering piles in front of a church, and finally laid out in a fluttering mosaic across rooftops, with the diminutive figure of a boy stretched out among them.
When the film first appeared in the West, few outside the Soviet Union had heard of its subject, so we had to take on trust that the vivid visuals bore some relation to the verse. But now that translations of some of Sayat-Nova’s lyrics are readily available, it has become clear that daggers, silks and brocades, and wandering in sackcloth and ashes are indeed the stuff of his love poetry. What Parajanov did was to stylize the poet’s world, literally visualizing his imagery, radically simplifying the story of his life, and totally dispensing with any framing or narration. In some ways, this approach could be compared with that of Ken Russell’s astonishing television arts documentaries of the sixties, The Debussy Film and Dante’s Inferno among them. But in Parajanov’s hands, the effect was as rich and strange as any film by Kenneth Anger or Derek Jarman. And indeed, the filmmaker’s use of actress Sofiko Chiaureli to play multiple androgynous roles—including the poet as a youth, the princess whom the poet loves, an angel, a nun, and white-faced mimes—somewhat anticipated Jarman’s use in the late eighties of Tilda Swinton’s statuesque beauty in films like The Last of England and War Requiem.
The lavishness of The Color of Pomegranates is all the more apparent in its current restoration, undertaken by the Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Italy using Russian and Armenian source elements. For nearly fifteen years after its first appearance, Pomegranates, like its maker, was a hostage to Cold War tensions. Banned, recut, smuggled to the West in a mediocre bootleg version—the film became a cause rather than an artwork in its own right. And the news that circulated of the harassment and imprisonment of Parajanov, accused of a bizarre range of misdemeanors, made it even more of a political issue, with supporters of artistic freedom throughout the world lining up to protest.
But what led Parajanov to make such a startling break in what might otherwise have been a relatively trouble-free, if minor, career in Soviet cinema? Born to Armenian parents in the multicultural Georgian capital now called Tbilisi in 1924, he was admitted to the prestigious Moscow film school VGIK in 1945. This was not, however, a glorious period for Soviet cinema. Under Stalin’s paranoid control, Soviet filmmaking had slowed to a trickle of bland productions, many of them vapid musicals or bombastic celebrations of victory, such as The Fall of Berlin (1950)—directed by the Stalin favorite Mikhail Chiaureli (coincidentally, Sofiko’s father). But Parajanov was lucky enough to study under two great Ukrainian directors at the ends of their careers, Alexander Dovzhenko and Igor Savchenko, which led to his moving to Kiev to be one of Savchenko’s assistants on what would be that filmmaker’s last work, Taras Shevchenko (1951).
Although that film is largely forgotten today, it’s tempting to see its celebration of a great nineteenth-century Ukrainian painter and poet as prophetic for the young Parajanov’s career. At any rate, he stayed on in Kiev, then home to one of the Soviet Union’s major film studios, and graduated to directing, making four features that were typical of what Soviet cinema was producing in the fifties and early sixties—one a musical comedy set on a collective farm, another a romantic melodrama called Ukrainian Rhapsody. In later years, he would dismiss his output from these years as “rubbish” and discourage interest in it, not wanting these conventional films to sully the new identity he had forged by making what came to be regarded as his first “real” work, the film evocatively known in English as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965).
What had inspired him? The story most often told is that Parajanov saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature in 1962, which he responded to as “a phenomenon, astonishing, unrepeatable, and beautiful . . . I would have done nothing if there hadn’t been Ivan’s Childhood.” Tarkovsky had taken a relatively conventional Russian war story, about a fearless young military scout, and invested it with extraordinary lyricism. Dream sequences use imagery that recalls Buñuel, Fellini, and, indeed, Freud. Shrouded in shadows, the film’s waking world was nightmarish. There had never been a Soviet film like it—at least not since the days of Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930)—and after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, it quickly catapulted Tarkovsky into the front rank of international filmmakers.
Parajanov’s Shadows had a similar impact, albeit on a smaller scale. What it heralded was a dynamic new approach to folkloric material, transforming a village Romeo-and-Juliet story from nineteenth-century Ukraine by means of a swirling camera and the bold use of primary colors—at one point, the screen is completely drenched in red. The film ran into trouble with the authorities, in part because of Parajanov’s insistence that the obscure Ukrainian dialect in which the film was shot not be dubbed into Russian for exhibition elsewhere in the Soviet Union, as Goskino, the central cinema administration, required. Shadows’ fate was in limbo for some time, but ultimately, the filmmaker won out and the film was released in its original language. Some Soviet theaters were put off from showing it, but attendance was respectable and it was widely written about in the Soviet film press, often positively. It also brought Parajanov international fame. But he had found himself caught in a cross fire between the authorities, the film studio, and Ukrainian cultural purists, who objected to his hallucinatory version of their folklore, and he would never get another Ukrainian film project past the screen-test stage.
Made for Armenfilm in Armenia and shot primarily in Armenia and Georgia, The Color of Pomegranates reflected Parajanov’s increasing interest in returning to his Transcaucasian roots (after his arrest in Kiev in 1973 and subsequent imprisonment for charges connected to homosexuality, he would move permanently back to Tbilisi). His family was part of Georgia’s sizable and old Armenian community. In his youth, he had studied music and dance at the state conservatory in the Georgian capital, but perhaps more relevant to his future cinematic output were the city’s antique shops and markets, where his father worked as a valuer, and the influence of his mother’s taste for traditional Caucasian culture. However, especially amid today’s strong currents of nationalism, disentangling the strands of Parajanov’s identity is inescapably difficult—as it was for the filmmaker himself. “My biography is very confused,” he admitted on a visit to the Rotterdam film festival in 1988, joking that since his friends didn’t even know when he was born, he could celebrate as many birthdays as he wanted—“any excuse for a feast in Georgia!”
Post-Soviet history has tended to emphasize the differences between what are now the independent republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, but these were usually treated as a single Transcaucasian entity in the early Soviet era, and considered uniformly exotic. One historical source of this orientalist view was Alexander Pushkin’s 1821 poem The Prisoner of the Caucasus, known to every educated Russian and rooted in a deeply romantic view of the region’s unruly bandit culture. Russian literature would continue to portray the Caucasus as an arena of adventure, notably in Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1840) and stories by Leo Tolstoy, but also as a place to experience natural beauty and find true love—a cross between the Scottish Highlands and the American Wild West.
Parajanov’s Sayat-Nova, to return to its original title, can be seen as an important sign of the growing sense of at least cultural independence in the Caucasus during the later Soviet period. Not long before embarking on his second groundbreaking feature, Parajanov made a short documentary study of the nineteenth-century Georgian-Armenian painter Hakob Hovnatanyan, filming details of the paintings and evoking the old Tbilisi of his own childhood. Then he set out to film in Armenia itself, at the medieval monastery complex of Haghpat, which provides one of the distinctive architectural settings for Sayat-Nova. Parallel to that production, the Georgian filmmaker Giorgi Shengelaia was making his Pirosmani, conjuring the quaint world of a turn-of-the-century Georgian naive painter. However, these two celebrations of artists met with very different receptions. Pirosmani paid tribute to a humble figure from the era shortly before the October Revolution of 1917, and won prizes and praise from all sides.
But Sayat-Nova—even after being reedited by Sergei Yutkevich, an old avant-gardist who undoubtedly hoped to make the film more widely showable, and given the more poetic title The Color of Pomegranates—quickly became notorious, suffering the same kind of trials that had greeted Tarkovsky’s biography of the medieval artist Andrei Rublev a few years earlier. Both films had limited screenings and were withheld from foreign release. Although different in almost every way, both had committed the crime of creating autonomous aesthetic worlds that pointed to no clear communist morals. In the case of Pomegranates, Parajanov’s radical tableau style and playful sense of the fantastic infuriated Armenian cultural purists. In Moscow, it was seen as expressing a new version of the “formalism” that had been labeled anti-Soviet in the thirties, on the grounds of being “unintelligible to the masses.” And in 1969, a general crackdown on dissident artists was under way, as Leonid Brezhnev’s hard-liners sought to rein in the relaxation that had created a thaw under Nikita Khrushchev earlier in the decade.
When Sovexportfilm finally released the Yutkevich version of The Color of Pomegranates internationally in 1983, no one could have predicted that the Soviet Union itself was on the brink of fundamental change. Indeed, Parajanov was already a part of this process, unbeknownst to most outside Georgia. He had been released from prison a year early, in 1977, but was doomed to abject poverty by being forbidden to work. Then, in 1982, Georgian Film Studio in Tbilisi offered him a new project. It transpired that Eduard Shevardnadze, first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party and future confidant of Mikhail Gorbachev, was piloting a local version of what would become known as glasnost, or openness, with Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (1984) and Parajanov’s The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985) as its star attractions—radical films by veteran directors of exactly the same age.
Parajanov’s version of a traditional Georgian legend did not have the immediate political significance of Repentance, which painted a bold allegory of a Stalinist despot whose legacy refuses to die. But his new freedom to work in the same richly decorated tableau style that the censors had considered so offensive in The Color of Pomegranates sent a strong cultural message that the persecution of artists for political reasons was finished. Soon, an avalanche of “unshelved” films, made during the previous twenty years but unseen to that point, would put Soviet cinema at the vanguard of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze’s program of perestroika, or reform. And Parajanov’s Ashik Kerib would follow in 1988, tracing a similar arc to that of The Color of Pomegranates—it features another wandering minstrel, this one gathering money to marry his beloved, in a series of ravishing compositions, and accompanied by folk songs from Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Having lived and worked entirely within the Soviet era, Parajanov poses a particular challenge to post-Soviet interpretation, even more so than the Ukrainian-Soviet Dovzhenko. His mature films variously draw upon Ukrainian, Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani visual and musical culture, although in eclectic, highly personal ways, while seeming to be remote from any influence by Soviet aesthetics. “There’s no logic to our backgrounds,” he declared in Rotterdam in 1988, admitting that he would never satisfy either Georgian or Armenian cultural purists, while professing special admiration for Pier Paolo Pasolini. And indeed, of all the comparisons that he has attracted—with Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Fellini, Anger, and Jarman, to name the most frequent—that with the Pasolini of Medea (1969), built around Maria Callas, and the early seventies’ Trilogy of Life seems to get closest to his spirit: sensual and sensuous, chic and deadpan, with a playful disregard for all propriety. And The Color of Pomegranates, in which he first found his unique style, with Chiaureli as its Callas or Swinton, must surely be counted his aesthetic masterpiece.