The Colour of Pomegranates Sergei Parajanov (USSR- Armenia; 1969) Sofiko Chiaureli; Medea Japaridze
Viewed on dvd at home, 23 November 2020
size is important
Some years ago I programmed Chantal Akerman’s ‘Je Tu Il Elle’ as the first film of a season of her movies. I hadn’t previously seen it and because I wanted to introduce this season of Akerman’s films to the audience I decided first to view the dvd at home. I found watching it on a small screen was hard work. In particular the opening sections which comprised long takes of an abstract nature. As the camera panned very slowly (in close up) across the white washed walls of Akerman’s bedroom, I looked at my watch and felt a sense of tedium. Watching on to the end of the movie I was thinking I was going to have to sit through all this again the next day. However the next day as I watched ‘Je Tu Il Elle’ on a large screen, Akerman’s images filling out the field of vision, the experience was completely different. Small scale the shots lacked detail and significance; on the large screen Akerman’s slow spacial pans opened up vistas into which I could enter and connect with her perception.
On viewing ‘Pomegranates’ my re-action was somewhat similar, some tedium and bemusement about what I was watching. Parajanov’s film declares itself to be a symbolic rendering of the life and work of Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat-Nova. I viewed the series of static but extraordinary framed compositions – comprising carefully assembled imagery – that fed into each other and linked by intertitle texts taken from the writings of Sayat-Nova, mostly of a religious or quasi religious nature. Parajanov’s film was interpolated and invigorated by the sort of music associated with Sayat-Nova; in particular the visceral penetrating sounds of the lyre and the tambour and religious chanting. What was it about? And was this even the question? What is the Colour of Pomegranates – blood? Sayat-Nova’s blood? Probably.
On the small screen I had watched as a series of tableaux vivants were presented and tried to understand something of what I was viewing beyond a literal itemisation of the images; how events in frame that were connected to the life of Sayat-Nova. Dissatisfied at the end of the film by not being able to engage with it, my thoughts were that this was a film that was made for projection on a large screen. To be seen as intended, Parajanov’s flow of images needed a screen that expanded out into the world and enabled a ‘seeing into’ state of mind. ‘Pomegranates’ isn’t a story; there’s no narrative pillar holding the scenario together. It’s a composition, perhaps with some resemblance to classical music, Eastern or Western, a relationship between form and cognition, form and emotion. After my viewing I could see something of how Parajanov had structured ‘Pomegranates’; but I hadn’t been able to get inside it to open myself to exposure of the contents. Was it simply a question of system of viewing, that not being able to see ‘Pomegranates’ projected as he intended, was a betrayal of Parajanov? Or was the film in some sort of final reckoning a magnificent visual specacle but flawed or made problematic because it is simply a massive exercise in self indulgence, a film that ultimately Parajanov made for himself?
My feeling after first viewing was that Pomegranates was a piece of visionary film making. It was like an abtruse poem; and I didn’t get it. But in that first meeting there was something glimpsed just beyond my grasp to which I needed to return to see if it was real or illusionary.
Not being able to view ‘Pomegranates’ on a proper screen, all I could do was to revisit the film, look at it a second time. This re-viewing would be pre-informed by my first screening. Second time around ‘Pomegranates’ ’ structure would not be a surprise. I had the feeling that it was a film to which you either surrendered or resisted. On a big screen, surrender would be facilitated by scale. I hoped that my second viewing would also make some form of surrender a possible response.
Watching ‘Pomegranates’ a second time with a vague commitment to allow the film to absorb me, did release another level of appreciation of Parajanov’s vision. I saw many of the same things that I had seen before in his compositions: the presence of the animal kingdom, the dancing movements and moments of hands and feet, the monumental solidity of stone, the fluidity of water, the soft concealing nature of fabric, the statuesque immobility of the face, all images repeated and brought together in different combinations in the progression of the tableaux. But this second time I was able to link the elements. The movement through the film was not concerned with formal or logical progressions but moved through states of consciousness, each image calling up different states of psychic arousal, sensitising mind to respond. Parajanov’s work is a quasi-liturgical expression of the life of the poet-troubadour, presenting the audience with a series of compositional statements in relation to: birth life death the hidden the known union faith love loss. ‘Pomegranates’ is about a particular life, that of Sayat-Nova, but it has a universal resonance. A life as liturgy. The constituent elements of the tableaux are simple: the animals, the body parts, water, the stone structures, the icons, the faces. And the faces! The very directness with which they are filmed: mostly still, without movement, without tricks. Parajanov never films the face as a means of exploiting the types of emotional manipulations inherent in the possibilities of Cinema. The audience are simply given the face. The faces are as icons; they look out from the film as pictorial affects which draw the audience to themselves and ask the viewer to confront complete and make their own association.
Second viewing deepened my appreciation of ‘Pomegranates’, not just in relation to the way Parajanov assembled his symbolic exegesis of Sayat-Nova, but also for his ‘moral’ presentation of the material. Like an Indian Raga or Chinese classical music Parajanov’s ‘Pomegranates’ there is both a cerebral engagement and possible emotional connection. As film composed of images and moods, is an extreme and magnificent act of directorial self indugence, but one in which the humanity of Parajanov, his connection to life makes possible multiple readings and multiple ways for the audience to connect with its extraordinary content. It is not a film that meets everyone’s idea of what a movie should be, but it is a film that can engage an audience prepared allow the space and time to see into what Parajanov has put onto the screen. After my second take on Pomogranates I felt in the main pulled into its mental and cognitive associations, but only during a couple of the compositions did I feel any emotional affect from the material. One tableau featuring a series of carpets stretched out on a series of lines from beind which figures emerged and engaged in short hypnotic dances, mainly with their hands: for some reason this pulled on me.
One observation I make about this symbolic rendering of Sayat-Nova’s life and work relates to the religious psychology expressed throughout the film, mainly through the text. I have no knowledge of Sayat-Nova, but the film – and I only saw the shortened version – has a mono-emotio-religious text, centred about suffering. There is humour, in the strange juxtapositions and off-beat imagery but the psychic line drawn through the film is that life is suffering, a Buddhist – like Christian affirmation of life as sorrow. I had always thought that poets if they spoke of suffering would also have things to say about joy about ecstacy about passion. This one note spiritual emotional message is off-set by the extrordinary music which cuts into another dimension: perhaps that was Parajanov’s answer.
The original edited version of the film was over four hours and the version I saw was about 90 minutes. I would not view the long version of the film on anything other than the large screen.