Reviews and notes
Note on prints
: due to adventitious happenstance the NZFFS have ended up with two different versions of The Colour of Pomegranates
. The 16mm print was acquired first. It originated from a copy smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the early eighties and shown internationally to encourage protest over the regime's treatment of Paradzhanov. The 35mm print comes straight from the bear's mouth, so to speak, acquired from Sovexportfilm just before the revolution. It naturally looks vastly superior to the faded 16mm print, with rich colours and excellent definition. However, the crucial difference is that each print represents a different cut of the film: the 16mm print, for all its shortcomings, represents Paradzhanov's own, definitive, edit; the 35 mm print is a re-edit conducted at the insistence of the bewildered producers by the veteran Sergey Yutkevich (director of Man with the Gun
). Unless you screen the two side by side, there is little obvious difference between the two versions, so the visual splendour of the 35mm Yutkevich version is generally preferable to the rather ratty Paradzhanov cut for those societies with the option.
- NZ Federation of Film Societies note
It has been noticeable for nearly two decades that the most interesting films emerging from the USSR are not those from Mosfilm Central but from the regional Soviets (most notably the Ukraine and Georgia), which have explored local history, folklore, traditions and beliefs. Most commentators, including Paradjanov, agree that this renaissance of what might be called the Dovzhenko tradition in Soviet cinema dates from 1962, when Andrei Tarkovsky made his first feature, Ivan's Childhood
, in the Ukraine. Since 1965, however, when Paradjanov made Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors
(his fourth feature, also in the Ukraine), the movement has increasingly been perceived as a 'problem' by the Moscow authorities.
In general, it seems, the films' emphasis on 'ethnic' elements has been interpreted as a kind of dissident nationalism, a defiant refusal of the fundamental clarity of 'official' Soviet aesthetics. At the time that Ancestors
was winning an unexpected international success, Paradjanov was explicitly supporting various Ukrainian dissidents, and the fact that he was refused work for four years is probably attributable more to his outspokenness than to his film. But a number of subsequent 'ethnic' films have met with strong disapproval in Moscow. Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev
, for example, made in the Ukraine in 1966, was not cleared for export until 1973. Tenghiz Abuladze's The Invocation
, made in Georgia in 1968, was not shown anywhere until 1975. And The Colour of Pomegranates
, never screened in its original version and only now exported in this modified version, has inevitably become a cause celebre in the struggle for artistic freedoms in the Soviet Union.
It's important to stress this history, since it goes a long way towards accounting for the 'obscurity' of Paradjanov's film, which is, of all Soviet films, undoubtedly the most hermetic in its symbolism since Dovzhenko's Zvenigora
. Although trained under Mikhail Romm at VGIK in Moscow, Paradjanov has deep roots in two of the regions (he was born into an Armenian family in Georgia, and should rightly be known by his Armenian name, Sarkis Paradjanian) and he worked for some fourteen years in a third (at the Dovzhenko Studios in Kiev).
Why should the Armenfilm Studio in Yerevan have chosen to employ him in 1969, when he had been effectively blacklisted for four years in Kiev? More particularly, why should the studio have allowed him to undertake a project as 'difficult' as The Colour of Pomegranates
? The answer - necessarily speculative - is perhaps that Armenia was anxious to assert its own culture at a time when neighbouring Soviets were asserting theirs, and that it was happy to allow the most acclaimed of ethnically Armenian directors a free hand to do so, despite the controversies surrounding him. These hypotheses are certainly lent credibility by the film itself which, even in the present version, constitutes a sustained hymn to Armenian literature, music and painting, not to mention the hieratic rituals of the church. Much of the film is equally steeped in Georgian culture, since Sayat Nova - like Paradjanov after him - spent his childhood in Tbilisi. But the prominence given to the Armenian national colours in the early dyeing-house scene (and subsequently echoed in the strips of red and blue lace woven and used as 'masks' by the Muse) confirms that the film aligns itself first and foremost with the historical Armenia that was lost in the wake of the Turkish invasion and massacres of 1915.
In such circumstances, the choice of a great national poet as the pretext for the hymn was obviously not without a certain political point, but this should not obscure the fact that the film is in no sense a literal biography of Sayat Nova. The first chapter is the only one that bears a direct relation to the reported facts of the poet's life: the move from Yerevan to Tbilisi (here elegantly signified through architecture and music alone), the apprenticeship to carpet weavers, and so on. The third chapter re-reads Sayat Nova's stint as court musician to King Erakle II of Georgia in a calculatedly ambiguous way, ignoring the legend that the poet was banished for an illicit liaison with the incestuous king's sister. And the real Sayat Nova died as Catholicos (archbishop) of Tbilisi, defending his cathedral from the Persian Muslim invaders, an event that the film alludes to only obliquely in the sixth chapter.
Paradjanov was manifestly less interested in historical truth than in turning Sayat Nova into a Christ-like cypher for his vanished nation, living out an impassioned conflict between sacred and profane impulses, living on through his works. Fittingly, then, there is no attempt at historical reconstruction as such, but instead a loving display of objects from the past: buildings, leather-bound books, slippers, dyeing vats, wine bowls, mitres... No pretence at conjuring to 'life' a vanished culture, but instead a proud and joyful insistence on cherishing the treasures of the past as they exist in the present.
Whatever 'obscurities' Paradjanov may have defensively intended, the film's specific range of Armenian/Georgian references inevitably puts the average Western viewer at a disadvantage. Much of the symbolism remains opaque and its sheer profusion sometimes amounts to an invitation to wallow in a kind of sensory overload. Paradjanov clearly wanted the film to have an oneiric force (why else would so many of the chapters comprise or become dreams?); but on the other hand, many of the strategies at work in his sound and image tracks are identifiably modernist, and seem perfectly amenable to rational analysis.
In the first place, a great many of the film's compositions are patterned after Armenian icons: both characters and objects are posed emblematically, perspectives are flattened, gazes are frontal. Second, sound is rigorously separated from image: there is no synchronous dialogue; spoken words are either quotations from Sayat Nova's verse (the poem "I am weary of this world" in Chapter 7) or disembodied commentaries on the action (the christening and the news of the Catholicos' death, both in Chapter 4); sound effects and music are used in 'blocks', sometimes to reinforce the overall structure, sometimes to underline connections between different sections of the film (as when the bath-house sounds from the first chapter are heard again in Chapter 2).
Third, the staging of several scenes is modelled on the folk-theatre traditions of masque and mime: the open-air games of the prince's courtiers in Chapter 3; the dance of human lusts, in which suits of clothes suddenly come to life, also in Chapter 3; the mingled lamentations and sensuality of the nun at the end of Chapter 4. Fourth, the frequent use of jump-cuts to interrupt the 'flow' of the film: in most cases, a shot is abruptly curtailed and then immediately restarted, as if two alternative takes had been spliced together (the best example is the epilogue, essentially a single shot that starts twice). Fifth, the careful interpolation of individual surrealist images in sequences that are otherwise quite 'realistic' in their stylisation: the drying-out of the waterlogged books in Chapter 1 climaxes with a shot of the boy Arutiun spreadeagled on a church roof, surrounded by hundreds of open books, their pages turning in the breeze.
This summary of the film's aesthetic strategies is by no means exhaustive, but it serves to help identify the underlying, unifying thread as a network of dualities. As sound is separated from image, so sound is set against sound, image against image, idiom against idiom. At first sight, the fundamental duality appears to be sacred/profane, and it is true that many of the incidents and motifs are presented in these two alternative lights.
Running even deeper, though, is a male/female duality. This is introduced objectively in the bath-house scenes in Chapter 1 (the boy Arutiun spies first on naked men, then on a naked woman, finding mystery in both spectacles), then developed with idiosyncratic subjectivity in Chapter 2, where the adolescent Arutiun acquires a separate female persona (the Muse), dressed identically with him, who gradually coaxes him into admitting the femaleness that he finds within himself. This statement of bisexuality, of course, reverberates through the rest of the film.
The poet's male and female personae come closest to merging after the death of the decadent prince, in their twin displays of grief over his mummified body. Thereafter, they diverge, the male poet withdrawing into a repressed and increasingly unhappy asceticism and the female Muse continuing to represent the will to live sensually and emotionally. Clearly related to this is the palpable homo-eroticism in the film's gaze at men other than the poet, from the half-naked courtier with a peacock's beak pressed to his lips in Chapter 3 to the ecstatic builder who tells the poet to die in Chapter 8. Paradjanov's choice of non-actors for these roles, these faces, evokes the methods of Caravaggio, who also peopled his 'sacred' canvases with figures taken from the street. There is an obvious parallel, too, with Pasolini's attempt to celebrate 'innocent' beauty in his "Trilogy of Life".
Paradjanov's achievement in The Colour of Pomegranates
is, in the fullest sense, extraordinary. It has the quality of a cinema without precedent, but it does have one antecedent in the work of another persecuted Soviet artist: the Eisenstein of Ivan the Terrible
, the Eisenstein committed to formal stylisation and colour montage who died ten years before his country's authorities consented to release his final work. Film historians are forever describing Eisenstein as a master with no disciples. Here, at last, is a film that advances Eisenstein's work as momentously as Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
did in 1958.
- Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1983
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