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CLASSICS: The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

August 20, 2019



written by: Sergei Parajanov, based on poems by Sayat Nova
directed by: Sergei Parajanov
rated: unrated
runtime: 79 min.
release date: October 1969 (Armenia) and October 1980 (U.S.)


“We sought asylum for our love, but the road led us out to the land of the dead.”


First things first, before we get started, I must inform you that “The Color of Pomegranates” is not for everyone. It is, however, for anyone that might want to reconsider the notion of what film can be. If you think that cinema exists to tell a multitude of stories in one specific way, that is with a cohesive narrative structure, you’re probably not going to think much of this film. If you’re open to the many possibilities of what a film can be, however, you’ll find much to love in these 79 brisk minutes.

Originally titled and officially recognized as “Sayat Nova,” “The Color of Pomegranates” is the translation of the title slapped on by Soviet censors at the time of the film’s release. According to a disclaimer before the movie begins, they felt it wasn’t properly reverent of the works of Sayat Nova, the poet. However, the film receives the Soviet-endorsed title on its release though the Criterion Collection, so that’s what I’m going with.




Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay “The Color of Pomegranates” is that it neatly fits the definition of artsy-fartsy. The film opens with poetry being spoken over images of a foot stomping on grapes or a fish struggling to breathe on the sand. It’s the sort of thing a collegiate athlete might jokingly imagine those weird cinema studies majors watch all day long in class. But it is an “art film” if for no other reason than it tries to be, essentially, a visual poem.

I likely could have watched the film with the subtitles off and come away with an equally rewarding experience. Parajanov has made a film that is poetic while also being a biopic about an honest to goodness poet, something that sounds—on paper anyway—like it just shouldn’t work. It works incredibly well though, thanks in no small part to Georgian-born lead actress Sofiko Chiaureli, who plays not only poet Sayat Nova as a young man, but also his lover, among other characters.

This touch, in particular, adds a great deal of nuance to the film in terms of its progressiveness even in such a restrictive time and place as Soviet-controlled Armenia. By having the same actress portray both the poet and his lover, Parajanov has subtly introduced the notion of gender fluidity. Aren’t we all just looking for ourselves in another when we seek out a partner? This takes that notion to Freudian heights with all the questions it makes the viewer consider.




Lebanon-born composer Tigran Mansuryan gives the film an incredible soundscape, with music tailored to fit any visual occasion. Many times, the instruments you’re hearing are being played on screen, making the film all the more immersive. Cinematographer Suren Shakhbazyan, production designer Stepan Andranikyan, and the film’s three credited costume designers all add to this strong, unified feel of visual poetry.

Speaking to other Criterion releases, the film has a lot in common with Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev,” in the way they both visually translate the work of a famous artist from another medium. It also feels right at home in the company of films of the Czech New Wave like “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders,” which is equally arresting in terms of visual splendor. That, in particular, is a film I’ve seen without subtitles and still enjoyed tremendously because of the poetic way in which it is constructed.

This film is the exact reason I’m so thrilled the Criterion Collection exists. I never would have heard of this film otherwise, unless via word of mouth which is somehow less reliable in the digital age. Criterion is a stamp of quality for any film scholar—or film geek—so I knew that even a blind buy of a film like this would yield something of artistic merit. I would love to see “The Color of Pomegranates” projected in 35mm somewhere, but I’m perfectly content to watch the best available version on Blu-ray in the comfort of my own living room.



RATING: ****




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