Sunday, September 16, 2012

Just watched...

..."The Color of Pomegranates" by Soviet director Sergei Parajanov.

Made in 1968, this film explores the life of Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, or "King of Song" in Persian. Born as Harutyun Sayatyan in 1712, Sayat-Nova was a wool-dyer, musician, singer, composer, courtier, priest, and archbishop. We see his life, not told literally, but in an abstract way, through his poetry, and through the imagination of the director, Parajanov. Using symbolism and allegory, the story unfolds in a series of highly stylized, stunningly beautiful tableaux vivants. The way each of these scenes is carefully composed, framed, and filmed (there's nary a shadow to be found among the extremely well-lit sets) vividly recalls illuminated miniatures from Armenian (as well as Persian, Indian and Medieval European) culture. What we see is a completely presentational style, with characters and objects arranged facing out as if on an altar, while actors behave as if they are performing some sort of solemn, arcane, ceremony. The result is something that unfolds with the gravitas of a Noh or Butoh performance.

The film might be confusing to anyone who is not familiar with the history of Armenia or with Sayat-Nova. Indeed, the use of symbols, metaphors, and allegory are obvious once one learns that, in a scene early in the film for example, the colors of skeins of wool being hauled out of vats of dye are the colors of the Armenian flag, or that, during the opening sequence, the pomegranate juice soaking through white linen table cloths form the boundaries of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. Even scenes within a bare room or that feature minimal objects feel sumptuous and ripe with meaning.

The film is hypnotizing, telling a story like a dream, using only images (no character actually speaks what anyone would consider to be "lines"), and the spell of the film is helped with a soundtrack of classic Armenian folk music. It is fascinating to experience how Armenian culture seems to be at once Middle Eastern, Asian, AND Eastern European.

Recommend? Oh yes, it is gorgeous. But don't expect a film with a clear narrative through-line. This is more like a series of paintings, inspired by the words of a poet and the rich cultural legacy of ancient Armenia, captured on film.

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