Criterion Throwback Review: Sergei Parajanov’s ‘The Color of Pomegranates’

If you’re looking to broaden your taste and try out something unconventional during this fine Criterion month, I’ve got you covered. This entry of the Criterion canon may be a newer addition, but it’s an older, influential work and a unique piece to the library of legacy. The Color of Pomegranates (directed by Sergei Parajanov) is a 1969 film dedicated to the life of the famous poet Sayat Nova, but it’s not your traditional biographical picture. Instead of an informative narrative following a cohesive journey recounting the events of Nova’s life, Parajanov prefers to capture the essence of his experiences through powerful, loosely connected audiovisuals. Influenced by the works of Tarkovsky, Parajanov seeks to use a surrealistic style to preserve the legacy of Nova and serve as a snapshot of Armenian culture.

The first act of the film, the poet’s childhood.

Naturally, for such an abstract film, there’s an interesting history behind the production of it. Parajanov faced difficulties getting the film distributed in Russia and overseas- his work deemed to have taken too many creative liberties, as well as the controversy over its homoerotic imagery, which sent Parajanov to jail. While there is a lot to uncover about this backstory, the film itself is still a fascinating piece of art. The Color of Pomegranates captures the stages of Nova’s life: growing up under Armenian culture, his sexual desires, his fascination with literature and the lead up to his death with detailed sets, costuming, hauntingly beautiful music, and snippets of poetry.

Thanks to the 4k restoration of the film done by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the film can fully be appreciated in striking HD. This was my first viewing in this new format and I found it to be elegant, sharp, and true to the original vision of the film. Every elaborate piece of set design, the rooftop of books, the complex patterns of the wardrobe and jewelry worn by the poet’s lover, stained paper, and dark chapels are painstakingly positioned and carefully composed in frame to create memorable imagery with full control. The feeling of living in Nova’s fantasies and dreams is fully realized into the immaculate scenery with the level of detail of a master’s painting.

To Western audiences, this might be hard to digest. I myself do not have the proper knowledge and context to fully comprehend the culturalist value of the film, but I can absolutely appreciate the detailed craftsmanship of it. The intricacy of every passing moment of the film is a spectacle to witness. The way the film moves along its runtime in a hypnotic trance feels very much like we’re taking a journey down the stream of consciousness of its subject. Every passion, every thought, every love he has is represented through in-depth symbolism. This is a very special type of experience- you might not come out of the film knowing more factoids about Sayat Nova’s life and history, but you will understand the emotions he experienced, the thoughts in his head, what sights and sounds brought him to translate them into written word. From religion, faith, to beauty, to bisexual desire and spirit- there is so much human soul in these 80 minutes.

A viewing of The Color of Pomegranates transports its viewer into the mind of an artist in a subjective rather than objective fashion. Though the love and motifs of Nova’s work are embedded into it, thanks to Parajanov’s visual direction, what you get out of it is up to you. This was one of my first ventures into abstract art film and it is one of the purest, emotional visual experiences I have had, and with this restoration, there is no better time than now to see it.

The poet’s lover.

The Color of Pomegranates is streaming on FilmStruck and has been released on Criterion Blu-Ray & DVD. The unrestored version can also be found on YouTube.

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