When speaking about the 1969 Armenian film The Colour of Pomegranates, Jean-Luc Godard cherished how much it represented, and in fact still represents, a true deep dive into the artistic potential of cinema. He said, “I think you have to live about 15 miles away and feel the need to walk there on foot to see it. If you feel that need and give it that faith, the film can give you everything you could wish” – a comment that may induce eye-rolling repudiation from some. Yet others may be intrigued and attracted to the concept of making a literal and spiritual odyssey in the name of challenging art and, despite its undeniable visual beauty, Sergei Paradjanov’s film is undoubtedly difficult to process, at least in the same way that you would the majority of his other films.
True originality is such a rare thing in cinema that you may almost feel compelled to celebrate The Colour of Pomegranates, by no means a negative reaction, but to be baffled and, frankly, bored by the film is an understandable response as well. G. Smalley, a writer on “weird” movies states, “If someone was to sit down to watch [the film] with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing”. True, the film gives very little information to the viewer about its subject, the national hero and poet Sayat-Nova, but Paradjanov is clearly not interested in a simple biopic. Sayat-Nova’s songs and poems are still widely read and performed in Armenia and his life is something of great interest to historians and countrymen alike but the film attempts to explore his inner life, his spiritual journey from inquisitive youngster to inspirational creator to tormented martyr.
It does not take an eagle-eyed or seasoned moviegoer to notice, at the very least, that something is distinctly different about The Colour of Pomegranates. The camera remains static for the entirety of the film with Paradjanov setting up singular scenarios (or what he called tableaux) often filled with wickedly striking imagery and gorgeous colouring. The first shot that infiltrates the consciousness so overtly is that of the young Sayat-Nova lying on the roof of a monastery, surrounded by religious texts, their pages flapping in the wind. It is a lingering shot and one that brushes against the pure surrealism that the film will soon come to embrace but it also does something that great filmmaking sometimes can – it inspires curiousity and maintains mystery.
Not every scene, however, benefits from this puritan approach to “show, don’t tell”. Religious ritualism in the 18th century is not exactly at the forefront of most audience’s general knowledge and the lack of any context means confusion and frustration becomes a factor upon first viewing. Whilst one image can leave you wide-eyed in astonishment with its use of negative space, the blackness of the background highlighting the beauty of a building’s architecture for instance, the next can only elicit bemusement as three women dance to music that sounds foreign to our ears in both time and place. No doubt, however, it is this otherworldly beauty that keeps historians and film scholars coming back for more – after all, it did place 84th in the most recent Sight & Sound list of the Greatest Films of All Time.
The penultimate shot of the film, in which numerous chickens, seemingly beheaded just before the camera started rolling, dance the dance of death, their flailing bodies snuffing out candles as they themselves disappear is a disturbing, bewildering and singular way to bring your movie to a close. For those looking for something different, there is no better place than to find yourself in the midst of Paradjanov’s delicate vista of visual metaphor and unearthly delights. At points, it is as though some mad genius took a camera back in time to medieval Europe, only to find himself trapped in between worlds, maybe of the dreaming and the dying. No surprise then, that it may take more than one cursory viewing to uncover the strange power that so many seem to bestow upon it.
The Colour of Pomegranates will be released by Second Sight in a two-disc Limited Edition Blu-Ray Boxset on the 19th February 2018. The supplemental features will include a wealth of material about the film and the director’s life, both of which may add some insight into this strange, beautiful and difficult work.