The Colour of Pomegranates

Armenia, 1969        77 mins.
Director/Screenplay:  Sergei Parajanov

Armenian intertitles:  Hrant Matevosyan.  Director of Photography: Suren Shakhbazian. Editor: Maria Ponomarenko. Art Directors: Stepan Andranikian, Mikhail Arakelian. Costumes: Elena Akhvlediani, Iosif Karalov, Jasmine Sarabian. Music: Tigran Mansurian. Sound: Yuri Sayadyan. Architecture Consultant: Victor Jorbenadze. Production Manager: Alexander Melik-Sarkisian.

Cast: Sofiko Chiaureli (the poet as a youth; the poet’s beloved; the nun in white lace; the angel of the resurrection; the pantomime), Melkon Alekian (the poet as a child), Vilen Galustian (the poet as a monk), Georgi Gegachkori (the poet in old age), Hovhannes Minsasian (the king), Spartak Bagashvili (the poet’s father), Medea Japaridze (the poet’s mother), Grigori Margarian (the poet’s teacher).

Director’s Biography

Sergei Parajanov was born to Armenian parents in Tbilisi (Georgia), 1924.  An adolescent passion for music shifted to an interest in cinema, so he entered the Moscow film school VGIK in 1945, graduating (after a period in jail) in 1952. He began directing features for the Dovzhenko Studio in Kyiv (Ukraine) in 1955 and achieved an artistic and popular breakthrough with his fifth feature Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors in 1964. His next feature Kyiv Frescoes was aborted in pre-production, but he was able to complete The Colour of Pomegranates for the studio in Yerevan (Armenia) in 1969. After two more periods of imprisonment, he made two features and one short for the Georgian studio in Tbilisi before his death of lung cancer in 1990.

The Colour of Pomegranates

If The Colour of Pomegranates were a building, it would be a world heritage site. Parajanov’s masterpiece stands as a monument of ‘poetic cinema’, an edifice composed of tableaux in the vein of Persian and Armenian miniatures.  Its images are finely balanced between the sacred and the profane, between exquisite spirituality and gleeful vulgarity. The tableaux present episodes, recalled or imagined, from the life of the 18th-century Armenian poet-troubadour Sayat Nova but (as the opening caption insists) the film not a conventional bio-pic. It does follow a trajectory from childhood to old age and death, taking in the youthful discovery of sexual difference and the adolescent pangs of a thwarted sexual passion. But focusing on the poet’s solitary ascendancy in the hierarchy of the Apostolic Gregorian church allows Parajanov to meditate on asceticism and to explore all the denials and repressions which life as a cleric entails.  The film is also a paean to Armenia’s history and culture (its original geographical boundaries are mapped in pomegranate juice in the preface); like Parajanov himself, Sayat Nova (birth-name Arutin) was an ethnic Armenian born in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The Restoration

The film’s ultra-stylised mise en scène and performances have roots in a Soviet poetic tradition (early Dovzhenko, late Eisenstein), but they baffled both Armenian and Russian bureaucrats in 1969; and a few historical references ran foul of Soviet censorship policies.  Parajanov’s original Sayat Nova was cut to 77 minutes by the Armenfilm Studio and briefly released in Armenia in October 1969 under the new title The Colour of Pomegranates (Nran Guyne in Armenian).  It was blocked from wider release in Soviet territories until the Russian director Sergei Yutkevich intervened to help Parajanov. Yutkevich shortened the film by a few more minutes and added numbered chapter intertitles, hoping to make the film seem more conventionally biographical. A poorly duped print of the Yutkevich version was smuggled out of the USSR (supposedly via Iran) and screened in various western countries in the late 1970s in support of an international campaign to get Parajanov released from prison; after the collapse of the Soviet Union, copies of the Yutkevich version were sold for distribution and home-video in several countries. Until a print of the 77-minute Armenian version was rediscovered (and restored at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, with support from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation World Cinema Project), the film was known to the world only in the Yutkevich version. The restored Armenian version will be released on blu-ray in the UK and USA in 2018.

Restored in 2014 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, in association with the National Cinema Centre of Armenia and Gosfilmofond of Russia. Restoration funding provided by the Material World Charitable Foundation and The Film Foundation.

Parajanov Filmography (feature films only)

Andriesh (1955), The First Lad (1958), Ukrainian Rhapsody (1961), Flower on the Stone (1962), Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), Kyiv Frescoes (1965, rehearsal footage only), The Colour of Pomegranates (1969), Legend of the Suram Fortress (1984), Ashik Kerib (1988).

Notes by Tony Rayns