Perplexing Poetry: Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968) – Blu-ray review
Parajanov turns poetry into film with undeniable craft and unfathomable meaning; an experiment seldom repeated on the big screen but an inadvertent inspiration to MTV.
The Colour Of Pomegranates
(Sergei Parajanov, 1969)
From Eisenstein to Tarkovsy, Soviet directors weren’t known for their accessibility. But with The Colour Of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov set himself the challenge of outdoing his peers and predecessors. The story – well, kinda – of Armenian poet Sayat Nova, it’s like Parajanov watched Tarkovsky’s study of another famous artist, Andrei Rublev, and said, “Nah, there’s not enough art in it.”
This, then, is a deep dive into the extremes of art cinema. Rather than a simple biopic, Parajanov immerses himself in both the historical facts of Nova’s life and the texts of the poems, and conflates them into a series of tableaux, reportedly to emulate the ‘inner world’ of Nova but close to a parody of any poet’s feverish imaginings. The result is as bonkers as that sounds, with incredible trouble gone to create eye-catching, yet elusive set-pieces, always filmed with a fixed camera but with the mise en scene bursting with detail.
To take one example: towards the back of the shot, a man appears to be levitating while asleep. Another man and a child stand on castle ramparts either side of the sleeper, throwing a golden ball to each other. In the foreground, on the ground, Nova watches as a white smock dances in the air, of its own accord. Beside him, a woman fires a gun. In the middle of it all, completely nonplussed by all this activity, a llama eats hay.
Note that this isn’t even the weirdest shot. The Colour Of Pomegranates is a film that highlights the sheer density of information that cinema can convey; there are moments it would take pages to describe if written down. The downside is that it’s often hard to physically tell what’s going on, and words might at least help to explain what we’re seeing. If you’re up for the challenge, this is the kind of film you could spend a lifetime trying to decode – or you watch it once and let its mesmerising but strangely inscrutable imagery wash over you.
The world’s critics placed this in the top 100 films of all time during the last Sight And Sound poll. It came between Casablanca and The Wild Bunch, and it’s hard to think of a film less like them. Even naming directors who have been influenced by Parajanov is difficult: Jodorowsky, Greenaway, Gilliam perhaps. The bigger influence, unlikely as it seems, might be in music video; it’s practically a mood board for the career of Tarsem Singh, and even Katie Melua borrowed its imagery to accompany one of her songs.
Certainly, while the effect is austere and scholarly, Parajanov’s visual style is flamboyance itself. How many films can credit both an architectural consultant and a jewellery designer? There’s a point where, without knowing the cultural specificity of Armenian art or history, all those symbols and allusions – the copious use of tapestries, the repeated imagery of holes, the menagerie of animals – are unmoored from meaning and become fodder for wall-to-wall pop-surrealist bricolage.