The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova): an idiosyncratic film that preserves the spirit and culture of Armenian people

Sergei Parajanov, “The Color of Pomegranates (Sayat Nova)” (1969)

A true labour of love, this film is a meditation on the life of the Armenian poet who was born Harutyun Sayatyan and came to be known as Sayat-Nova (Persian for “King of Songs”). Since the film isn’t intended as an authentic blow-by-blow account of Sayat-Nova’s life, here is a quick rundown of his life (the information is from Wikipedia): born in Tbilisi in Georgia in 1712, Sayat-Nova acquired skills in writing poetry, singing and playing at least three types of stringed musical instrument. He entered the court of King Irakly II of Georgia as both full-time professional poet and diplomat and in his capacity as a dilopmat helped forge an alliance of Georgia, Armenia and Shirvan (a former state now part of Azerbaijan) against Persia. Sayat-Nova was expelled from the court for falling in love with his employer’s daughter and became a wandering troubadour. He entered the priesthood in 1759 and served in various monasteries, dying in Haghpat monastery in northern Armenia in 1795 when a foreign army invaded the building and killed the monks inside.

Knowing the background information will enable viewers to get a handle on an otherwise confusing series of visually gorgeous and lush tableaux showcasing Armenian culture and its steadfast devotion to Christianity which incorporates animal sacrifice. The film follows Sayat-Nova’s inner life  and impressions of the world around him based on his poetry and songs. The structure of the narrative is straightforward and organised into chronological episodes starting with the poet’s childhood and youth and continuing into his time at the royal court and later entry into monastic life. There are deviations into aspects of the poet’s inner life: his dreams, sexual desire and love for a woman and meditation on death. Each episode of Sayat-Nova’s outer and inner life is an opportunity for director Parajanov to highlight the culture, music and society of the poet’s time: to take one example, the poet’s childhood becomes a device to emphasise the importance of learning, education and religious study in Armenian society at the time. Scenes of the young Sayat-Nova surrounded by open books on roof-tops stress the value of books and their preservation. When the young budding poet is tired of studying books, he hangs around wool-dyers and the bath-house and again various tableaux show the dyers at work. boiling pots of dye and drenching wool into them, and various men relaxing and being scrubbed in the bath-house. These and all other tableaux of 18th-century Armenian life and culture in the film are often symbolic in ways that may be religious or hint at something darker. Demonstrating the importance of stock-breeding in 18th-century Armenia, animals appear in nearly all tableaux, culminating in one extraordinary scene in which the middle-aged poet is nearly swallowed in a flock of sheep filling up all the space and the corners of a church: there may be hints of pre-Christian nature worship in this particular scene as well. Viewers are invited to wonder at the richness and complexity of the culture and values inherent in these scenes and to meditate on what meanings, personal or otherwise, may exist within. Magic may be found and for some viewers the past itself may come alive with personal messages for them and them alone.

For this viewer at least the music soundtrack itself is amazing: it has many Middle Eastern influences, Christian choral elements and there are even hints of musique concrète: in one scene, men are working on part of a church with chisels and the noise they make is incorporated into the soundtrack rhythm. The film suggests a link between one musical instrument that Sayat-Nova plays and his sexual desire: in one scene the poet traces spirals around the body of a lute as if tracing spirals around a conch (already established as a sensual symbol of the female body). The implication is that much of Sayat-Nova’s poetry and music was inspired by personal lust and desire translated into inspiration. As though to drive the point home, the film provides an actual lust object of a muse played by Georgian actor Sofiko Chiaureli who handles five different roles in the film including the poet himself as a teenager. The very fact of a woman with flawless features playing an adolescent boy introduces a homo-eroticism into the movie which among other things got Parajanov in trouble with the Soviet government. Chiaureli and the other actors speak no dialogue and perform minimal actions with expressions that are either blank or at least gentle, kindly and serene. In maintaining a steady, calm composure throughout their scenes, not giving the least hint of injecting their own thoughts, feelings and misgivings into what they are doing, the actors demonstrate their skill.

Apart from necessary scene breaks there isn’t much editing and the camera rarely moves so each scene has a painterly quality and is a diorama of moving characters who appear two-dimensional in the way they may move from side to side. Close-ups of actors playing Sayat-Nova and those who influenced his work portray them as if they are religious icons.

For Western viewers the first half of the film is of more interest in showing more of the traditional folk culture and values of the Armenians and the pace is steady though not fast; the second half of the film which deals with Sayat-Nova’s inner life much more, with his dream and contemplation of death, is slower and more esoteric. As the poet revisits his childhood in parts, some scenes may confuse viewers with the sudden appearances of the same child actor who played Sayat-Nova early in the film. The last two episodes appear redundant as they revolve around death. In the second half of the movie also, there is a sense of aloneness and alienation: Sayat-Nova appears to be at odds with the monks in the monastery at times and doesn’t participate in the monks’ communal activities. At one point in the narrative, he even leaves the monastery to go and work among the common people. It is possible that Parajanov was projecting something of his own life and experiences in the “life” of Sayat-Nova as it plays out here.

With this and other movie-length films such as “The Legend of Suram Fortress” and “Ashik Kerib”, Parajanov was perhaps trying to capture the spiritual essence of the cultures around which the films revolve so that Armenians, Georgians and Azeris alike could see through the rituals, customs and traditions shown the reverence their ancestors had for God, their land and way of life. Why Parajanov did this must be seen in the context that he had to work in: the Soviet government did all it could to suppress religion and its rituals. In doing so, it was wiping out much of the cultures of non-Russian peoples under a multicultural façade that celebrated “folk cultures” as long as they were drained of any inner meaning. This may have been the intention as religion is often the basis of a people’s identity and culture, and without religion, people in the Soviet Union would have become easier to mould in the regime’s idea of the new Soviet citizen.

Not necessarily suited for a wide general audience due to the subject matter and its treatment but for those of open mind and who are interested in film as more than moving stories, this film is a worthwhile treat. It serves as an original and eccentric introduction to the culture and society of 18th-century Armenia through the life of one of its most famous sons.

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