“Poetry”, to quote Poe, “is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” And poets the world over have sought to distill their vision and experience into this most compressed of forms. Sadly cultural exchange has seen few renderings of Sayat-Nova, a 17th century Armenian troubador, in English, which makes difficult a wider understanding of this bard’s work in the context of Sergei Parajanov‘s The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968, 78 mins), a biographical tale that dispenses with regular storytelling and instead takes a more audacious approach.
At the heart of the film is a new cinematic language, like what Dziga Vertov once delivered in Man With A Movie Camera. Here Parajanov practically dispenses with a linear narrative — though not completely — and instead offers a fascinating series of images. The narrative is fairly simple: the young Sayat-Nova grows up, joins a monastery, becomes old, and dies. However the execution makes a poet of Parajanov as he delivers scene after scene of intriguing events. Books, previously dripping with water, are left on a roof to dry in the sun. Musical instruments, those tools of the troubadour, both levitate and spin. It’s beautiful to watch but understanding of the story is difficult and, based on the abundance of symbols on offer, wide open to interpretation. Scenes are likely inspired if not by its subject’s poems or the images within those poems, then by a strong connection to Armenia’s valiant history.
The first nation to adopt Christianity, religion is an important aspect of life in Armenia. Sitting where it does geographically, it has faced considerable historical attacks by way of Islamic invaders, not to mention suppression via Soviet state atheism. Sayat-Nova was put to death for refusing to convert and in doing so he embodied his nation, a people who for centuries had faced down the enemy and remained fiercely Christian. And The Colour Of Pomegranates is generous with religious, historical, and national imagery that, to the lay viewer, is likely to pass unheeded. They certainly passed with little comprehension here, although that’s not to dismiss the enjoyment possible. Near the beginning the youthful poet holds aloft a skull in a helmet and covers his eyes. A memento mori, perhaps, as the poet comes of age to recognise the finiteness of life, but also a reference to Saint Vardan. Does one need to understand the latter when the former is a valid interpretation?
Away from the visuals, the sounds also provide interest. There’s little dialogue between characters and, in fact, little character to these characters, who stand silent staring at the static camera or move in rhythmic patterns. Further confusion comes from the acting of Sofiko Chiaureli, charged with six roles, including a younger incarnation of Sayat-Nova. When there is talking, it’s typically takes the form of wisdom, perhaps observations from Sayat-Nova’s poems. But the human voice is not just limited to speech and, throughout, there is a variety in the soundtrack, ranging from religious chants through folk songs with some elements calling to mind Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Gesang der Jünglinge.
How, then, does one appreciate a film they are never likely to understand? To simply go with the flow would be the answer. The story need not be so detailed to enjoy what’s available. And in The Colour Of Pomegranates there is an experience like few others in film. As a biography of a historic poet, you will likely leave knowing no better about his life. As a film exploring what cinema can do and be, there’s much fruit for the taking.