10 Things I Learned: The Color of Pomegranates

10 Things I Learned: <em>The Color of Pomegranates</em>


Born Arutin Sayadyan, eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova—whose pen name means “King of Songs”—served as the initial inspiration for The Color of Pomegranates. Sayat-Nova was an ashugh, a troubadour whose verses were set to music that he played on a lute. Because he wrote in three languages spoken in Transcaucasia—Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian—he has long been revered as a symbol of brotherhood in the region, as illustrated by this stamp commemorating the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1712.


The director of The Color of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov, was of Armenian heritage but was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. He saw himself as spiritual kin to Sayat-Nova and believed that his ties to multicultural Transcaucasia made him the ideal artist to bring the poet’s life to the screen. From 1945 to 1952, he studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow, and Aleksandr Dovzhenko and Igor Savchenko were among his instructors there. Among his early efforts, all of which he would come to deem forgettable and disown, are The Top Guy (1959), a box-office hit, and Ukrankian Rhapsody (1961).


Parajanov credits Ivan’s Childhood, the 1962 war drama by Andrei Tarkovsky, with opening his eyes to the possibilities of cinema. The surreal fantasies and dreams in that film broke with the genre conventions and realism that were common in Soviet cinema at the time. The two filmmakers would eventually become close friends.


For The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov eschewed traditional biopic narrative and focused on visual and sonic details. The director stated that he wished to “show the world in which the ashugh lived, the sources that nourished his poetry . . . national architecture, folk art, nature, daily life, and music will play a large role in the film’s pictorial decisions.” He placed a lot of importance on filming at historical locations that had been important in Sayat-Nova’s life, such as Haghpat Monastery, where the poet had lived as a monk in his later years.


Though many of the religious props seen in the film were rare artifacts, Parajanov—whose credit on the film is “author”— added his own personal touches. He designed a number of the costumes, including the green dress worn by the Angel at the film’s conclusion. 


Actor Sofiko Chiaureli portrays a number of different characters in the film, including the poet and his love. The choice to use the same actor for both of those roles was inspired by Persian miniature paintings, which often depict couples with similar faces and features.


In another nod to miniature painting, the perspective within shots is often deliberately “flattened.” This technique evokes the tradition of Persian still life and tableaux.


The film was originally going to be called ­Sayat-Nova, but Gevorg Hairian, chair of the Goskino studio in Armenia, decided too many liberties had been taken with the subject’s biography. The title was changed first to Ashkharums and eventually to Nran guyne (The Color of Pomegranates). It was under the latter title that the film premiered in Armenia. 


As poetic as the film’s intertitles are, none of them contain the writing of Sayat-Nova. When it became clear to Goskino that the film wasn’t the biopic it had expected, Parajanov was forced to further distance The Color of Pomegranates from the work and real-life details of the ashugh. Renowned Armenian author Hrant Matevosyan was commissioned to write the on-screen text.


Because of its displeasure with the film’s unorthodox take on Sayat-Nova’s life, Goskino refused to let it be shown abroad. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, while Parajanov was imprisoned on charges of “homosexuality and dissemination of pornography”—charges that many insist were politically motivated by his association with Ukrainian dissidents and public criticism of various Soviet authorities—that the film appeared in the West in a bootleg print. This breakthrough happened after film scholars such as Herbert Marshall championed the work and protested Parajanov’s incarceration.

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