Soviet director Sergei Parajanov offers a helpful word of warning in the opening scroll from The Color of Pomegranates, his 1968 film about 18th-century Armenian poet and singer Sayat-Nova. “This film is not the story of a poet's life,” the text reads. “Instead, the filmmaker has attempted to recreate the world of a poet—the modulation of his soul, his passions, and his torments.” This précis, delivered on white text against a black background, is perhaps the only moment of clarity in the entire 78-minute feature, which soon lunges into a mostly wordless series of abstract images.
The film, which employs a nonlinear timeline, is so abstract that it even trades the role of Sayat-Nava among several actors, who play the artist at various stages of life. There's the poet as inquisitive child (Melkon Aleksanyan), as a chaste monk (Vilen Galstyan) who enters a cloister following a failed attempt to woo a princess, and as an old man (Giorgi Gegechkori). Most notable, though, is actress Sofiko Chiaureli's performance as Sayat-Nova as a young adult. Chiaureli plays several roles throughout the film—various figures and imagined muses at work in the mind of the artist—and her deadpan androgyny foregrounds the heavy bisexual subtext that pervades the foregrounded importance of religious faith in Sayat-Nova's life.
Running counter to the film's depiction of Soviet anticlerical bias, Parajanov portrays Sayat-Nova's inspiration in religion. One early scene features a narrator reciting the biblical story of the flood as water cascades around a church, even running over a stack of books held by monks. The next day, the young Sayat-Nova places the religious texts on the church roof to air-dry, laying among them with arms outstretched as if hoping that the wind rippling the books' pages might carry some of their knowledge into him.
Inspired by illuminated manuscripts of Armenian art history, Parajanov arranges frames with a geometric precision that testifies to the amount of thought placed into each image. As in the Armenian miniatures, backgrounds provide an anchor for bodies arranged so dynamically that even shots of people frozen in place convey a sense of action. Throughout The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov places a great deal of space between characters to maximize the vertical area of the frame and the overall depth of compositions. Everything in the frame has a brushstroked quality, from the sandy yellows that suffuse most sets to the copious use of face paint on the actors, adding to the disorienting beauty of the director's impressionistic approach.
Yet even as Parajanov renders Sayat-Nova's life as abstraction, he foregrounds images that silently establish the historical context around the poet. That Sayat-Nova lived in the late 18th century clashes with the medieval costumes and sets, which offer a silent testament to Armenia's slow development. Overlapping European and Middle Eastern iconography similarly give an idea of the intersections of Armenia's culture with that of the Persian Empire that then ruled the nation. The film's intuitive probing into history and the protagonist's pious life is difficult to describe but surprisingly simple to understand, as Parajanov leaves a breadcrumb trail of easily decoded symbolism that allows more obscure references to be gleaned from context clues. This lucid undercurrent preserves the indelible mystery of The Color of Pomegranates while preventing the film from slipping into arch esoterica, giving purpose to its undiluted hypnotic properties.
The Color of Pomegranates is one of the most exquisitely photographed films of all time, and it looks spectacular on the Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray. Sourced from a 4K restoration, the transfer gracefully balances the film's wild clashes of color, highlighting the juxtapositions of golden-hued backgrounds, vividly dyed clothes, and the pale blue, ghostly paint that frequently covers the actors' faces. If old prints and home-video releases of the film gave the impression of looking at realistically time-worn Armenian miniatures, this restoration is so vivid that you almost feel as if you're right there watching those miniatures being painted. The disc's audio track cleanly reproduces the film's sophisticated sound design, best exemplified in a scene of monks eating pomegranates where the squelching of the fruit is so amplified that the act becomes a kind of sexual displacement for the chaste order.
Tony Rayns provides an audio commentary in which he ably recounts the history, biblical quotations, and other references that provide the inspiration of the film's imagery. Rayns also helps to clarify some of the film's loose narrative progression in order to give the viewer a better idea of the protagonist's life. There's also an exceptional video essay by film scholar James Steffen, who thoroughly delves into the film's formal devices along with its more impressionistic connections between religion and sex. Steffen provides an additional interview detailing the film's production. An archival French documentary covers Parajanov's career and long battles with Soviet censors and authorities, while another documentary covers the life of Sayat-Nova. Finally, there's an experimental short documentary, Martiros M. Varatanov's The Last Film, which pays tribute to Parajanov, as well as an extensive essay on the film and Parajanov's career by Ian Christie.
Sergei Parajanov's strange, mesmerizing masterpiece looks more breathtaking than ever on Criterion's new Blu-ray, and a batch of expertly analytical extras offer additional help deciphering its cryptic nature.