May 23, 2015

SIFF 2015: The Rich World of The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Armenian director Sergei Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates explores the life of 18th century poet and musician Saya-Nova in a visual, poetic style. With a series of brightly-hued tableaux it attempts to explore his inner life and the way his surroundings inspired him. It is a mysterious, regal film with a mysticism reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky, though with a less brutal approach than that director. 

A gorgeous new digital restoration of the film by Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project played to a packed, hushed house this week at Seattle International Film Festival.

As the film unrolls, different stages of the poet's life are explored in somewhat chronological order, though the timeline can occasionally shift into the past. We are shown a public bath, the slaughter of sacrificial lambs, wool being dyed for rugs and women sitting at the loom weaving. 

The young Saya-Nova observes silently, inserting himself into each scenario, but rarely participating. It is an extremely effective way to demonstrate how the poet was influenced by the events in his life.

The static, but vividly-executed scenes that make up Pomegranate are staged with deliberate pacing and a sense of discipline. With its feeling of ceremony and tradition, it reminded me a lot of a Kabuki performance I saw as a child. Ordinary details of life are made extraordinary with this added sense of drama. You can sense how life was more intensely felt by the poet.

This is a film devoted to the senses. It is rich with bright bursts of color against a canvas of grays and whites. The sound is just as striking, alive with the crackling of book pages and the sensuous sound of splashing water. Because there are few spoken words and no dialogue, you are freed to absorb every nuance of the sound and visuals.

The actors in Pomegranate are rigid to the point of being objects themselves, reinforcing the tableaux feel. They are almost sinister in their sense of quiet and mystery. There is rarely a smile, and most of the words spoken are in narration, and so you are left to observe as if in a gallery, wondering about the inner life of these beautifully costumed and painted characters.

I know nothing about Armenian culture, so I was often not sure which elements were the creation of the director. Many of the dances, costumes and songs had a traditional feel, but I wondered what touches Parajanov had added to the mix. I do know that the director intended to make a film a Transcaucasian, multi-cultural project, drawing from traditions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kyiv, all of them filming locations as well.

Director Sergei Parajanov had a rocky life. He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union (which is now Armenia)in 1924. He rejected the accepted socialist realism filmmaking style of his country and was constantly reviled for pursuing his own artistic vision. His lifestyle was also controversial: in 1948 the director was imprisoned for homosexuality, which was illegal at the time, though he only served a short term.

His first wife was murdered by her family because she converted to his religion to marry him; his second wife gave him a son and while the marriage didn't last, their friendship endured. By 1973, Parajanov was in trouble with the government again for his bisexuality and rebellious lifestyle. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp. By then the director had the support of an international artistic community who protested his imprisonment, but to no avail.
Sergei Parajanov

You can sense the intensity of Parajanov's life and his rebellion against conventionality in his work. Martin Scorsese called Pomegranates, "unlike anything in cinema history" and that description is apt. A work this magical does not come out of conformity and is a testament to the power of pursuing individual thought.

It was interesting to hear the reactions of the audience to this unusual film as they wandered out of the theater in a daze. One adorable young man walked in stunned silence with his boyfriend for a moment, before he turned to him and asked, "so, should we have chicken tonight?" at which they both started laughing. Other people I overheard trying to unravel the mysteries of the film alternated between simply deciding to admire the colorful, regal feel of the film, to attempting to find literal meaning in the way the different parts of the poet's life were presented.

It is this sort of adventurous programming that makes SIFF one of the best festivals in operation. I'm immensely grateful to have experienced this film on the big screen.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

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