Deep Red
Joanne Kouyoumjian on The Color of Pomegranates

Steeped in religious iconography, The Color of Pomegranates is a deeply spiritual testament to director Sergei Parajanov’s fascination with Armenian folk art and culture. It is also a controversial work, which, coupled with another of his films, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, led to his arrest and imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag for four years. The Soviets insisted he was guilty of selling gold and icons illegally and committing “homosexual acts.” In reality, his only crime was offending the tenets of socialist realism, both in his daring surrealistic form and in his choice of subject matter. While many of the popular films of this era in Soviet cinema were largely propaganda designed to serve the ideological interests of the regime, Parajanov chose to focus on the ethnography and spirituality of the Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.

The Color of Pomegranates is a poetic, dreamlike film that seeks to portray the life of Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova through images inspired by his life and poetry. Born Haroutiun Sayakian, he is remembered as Sayat Nova or “king of songs.” Raised in the Georgian city of Tiflis (as was Sergei Parajanov himself), Sayat Nova performed in the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Persian languages. This brought him fame beyond the Armenian community and he was summoned to serve as Court Musician and Poet by Heracle II, the 18th-century king of Georgia. After falling in love with the king’s sister, Princess Anna, he was expelled from the court. He spent the rest of his life as a monk where he continued to write poetry and music. To the Armenian people, Sayat Nova is considered a martyr because he was executed by the invading Persians for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

Parajanov’s decision to make a film about the life of an Armenian poet and martyr was a dangerous one. Armenian national identity was not to be prioritized—it was viewed as only a part of the Soviet Union. The idea of Armenian independence and secession from the Soviet Union was still dangerous and punishable by death. The lack of a Soviet presence, or any other typical themes of the propaganda films of the time, marked The Color of Pomegranates as a subversive work.

The text of the film, the poetry of Sayat Nova, and the life of director Sergei Parajanov are all reflections of the Armenian national identity, which is itself deeply connected to the Christian faith, as they were the first “nation” in the world to adopt the religion, in the year 301. Surrounded by largely Muslim populations, they were an easy target for invasion and subjugation by their neighbors. The paradigm of Christianity, the images of the suffering of Christ and subsequent salvation—most recently exacerbated by the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey at the beginning of the last century—are at the core of Armenian individuality.

So what is the color of pomegranates? As the film opens, we see thorns intercut with images of pomegranates soaking a white cloth with their juice, a deep blood red. Then we see a dagger resting upon this same, stained cloth. A voice reads from the poetry of Sayat Nova: “I am a man whose soul is tormented.” In Armenian mythology, the pomegranate was a symbol of fertility, literally fruitfulness—it is said that a ripe pomegranate contains 365 seeds, one for each day of the year. The thorns are those of the crown that Christ wore as he suffered on the cross. The two are inseparable, bound closely by the image of bloodshed, the inevitable fate of the Armenian people—here there is only sacrifice and suffering. Later in the film a priest wearing the traditional black garb of the Armenian apostolic church utters “heaven has deemed that sorrow be our lot.” With the camera set at a distance, the monks gather before him, also cloaked in black, shroud-like robes fall on their knees. Everywhere there is death, darkness, disaster—and yet, a feeling that the biggest disaster, the ultimate catastrophe is still to come.

The inescapable trappings of faith are carried in the wandering heavy heart of the artist, the troubadour. The film depicts Sayat Nova’s childhood in Tiflis through a series of disconnected, surreal images. A priest gives the young boy books to read, telling him that the world is nothing without the written word, all would be lost in ignorance without it. The boy carries the weighty books, (bibles, prayer books) to the roof of a stone church building. He lies, arms outstretched, Christ-like, as the pages flutter open, the sounds of paper flapping in the wind. The artist accepts his fate, his responsibility to the knowledge bestowed upon him. Hereafter, he must attempt to keep a record of this wisdom, but also to pass it along as a precious heirloom, to maintain it at all costs. This is his immortal faith, his sacrifice, which he accepts as more important than his own mortal being, for one day he will pay for his faith with his life.

The sacrifice, of course, of Sayat Nova is similar to the one that Parajanov had to make when he refused to renounce or compromise his spiritual vision. The son of Armenian genocide survivors, Parajanov felt first-hand the responsibility he carried with him as an artist. Art renders immortal those who were lost; memory is the only thing that remains of both a glorious history and a catastrophic end. He explains his commitment to Armenian culture and faith best in an interview:

I owe Armenia a cinematographic confession. A sort of personal bible: my mother, my father, my childhood, my imprisonment. My vision of dreams... the ghosts seek shelter with me, their living heir. But I can’t take them in. I have to tell the police that they’re staying with me. They know neither electricity nor insurance agents. They know no evil. They want to stay with me. I have to prove I love them.

The Color of Pomegranates is a testament to his love of his family, and his culture. It is a mourning of the passing of time, of the destruction of an ancient society and tradition, but it is also a celebration of beauty. The camera is usually stationary, the actors a moving tableau before it, striking poses as though threads in an enchanting woven Persian tapestry or an ancient biblical illustration. The costumes are glorious embroidered robes, and the actors dance and move within them slowly, as though moving underwater. Actual stone monasteries and churches in Armenia serve as backdrops, surrounded by green hills, wide-open spaces, deep skies. These dances are punctuated by the sound of the violin-like kemenche (the instrument used by Sayat Nova) and the words of his poems, often morose and full of longing.

Finally, the poet is sacrificed, he kneels on the floor of the church, wearing white, arms outstretched, the red blood staining his robe a reminder of the film’s opening shots. We see no Persian soldiers, no outright violence committed against him. He kneels alone and this sacrifice is seen as a willing one. In keeping with the imagery of Christianity, the “king of songs” accepts his fate just as Christ allowed himself to be crucified. We have come full circle, the beginning and the end are the same, and death is the inevitable price to pay for one’s faith. The words that Parajanov chooses to extract from Sayat Nova’s poetry explain his feelings about this sacrifice.

my songs alone will not desert me…

The fate of the poet is not as important as the poems themselves, because they serve to memorialize and to honor the faith and lives of those who came before. Parajanov knew that he would be condemned for his films, but he was willing to sacrifice his safety to realize on film the traditions and beauty of his people. Even after his release, Parajanov was committed to his vision, creating more surreal, ethnographic films like Ashik Kerib, a retelling of a Georgian folk-tale. Clearly there was much pleasure in these stories and images for Parajanov, but a huge part of the creative process here is the paradigm of sacrifice. The suffering of the artist seems essential to the meaning of this film, it could not have been made in any other way. The motivation of The Color of Pomegranates seems best described by the life and poetry of Sayat Nova himself:

a poet dies but his muse is immortal.