Sunday, 1 February 2015

1,001 Films: "The Colour of Pomegranates/Sayat Nova" (1969)

It's not just the shade but the taste and texture that bleed into The Colour of Pomegranates, Sergei Paradjanov's tart, zesty biopic of the 18th century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, which earns its classic status in part by being far livelier than any biopic of any 18th century Armenian poet ought to be. For those raised on Hollywood's linear approach to biography, it must have come as the shock of the century. The poet's life and work are here presented in a series of symbolic tableaux, some of which translate easier than others, most of which are open to interpretation: you can see why Paradjanov came to be hounded by the Soviet authorities for practising subversion. The shot of books being squirted with a milky liquid would have been the obvious, early tip-off to censors used to hearty peasants-on-tractors musicals, but we also get suggestive seashells, religious rituals, more quilts than even the Women's Institute would know what to do with, period pages and paintings, songs about windows, and lingering shots of grapes being crushed underfoot. (It's a rare non-dance film in which hands and feet become as eloquent as the faces.)

What each section means may be a matter for scholars to decipher, but the whole nevertheless feels oddly comprehensive, definitive even: it survives as an expansive form of poetry in itself, with Paradjanov using all the cinematic effects then available to him in an attempt to match the depth and range of his subject's vocabulary. Every image becomes the exact right choice of word to communicate multitudes about the essence of Sayat-Nova; even that small minority of us who've thus far been strangers to Armenian poetry should emerge from it convinced we know something of the limitations this poet transcended. (Astonishing to think Sayat-Nova spent much of his adult life sequestered in a monastery: just imagine the images Paradjanov would have dreamt up if his subject had given him cause to turn his camera to the outside world.)

Perhaps only Tarkovsky's contemperaneous Andrei Rublev rivals it in its evocation of a man and his aesthetic, but that film's beauty was of the reserved, austere kind cherished by its director; Paradjanov, for his part, favours fruit-bright hues, incessant motion, striking symmetries, and what look to be coded visual puns and gags. Certainly, there's nothing else in cinema that looks like it, perhaps because the aesthetic - the challenge - couldn't be sustained either commercially or physically: in and out of prison for the remainder of his career, Paradjanov himself struggled to replicate it. Instead, the film's poetics were slipped piecemeal into advertising, which seems a shame, but also pop promos, particularly those made during the 1980s, when The Colour of Pomegranates would have been doing the rounds on Channel 4 and the metropolitan rep circuit. For further reference, see New Order's "True Faith", Anton Corbijn's work with Joy Division, Derek Jarman's work with the Pet Shop Boys, and anything subsequently directed by Tarsem Singh - yes, even Immortals.

The Colour of Pomegranates is available on DVD through Second Sight.

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