BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: round three of shorts by the doyenne of the French New Wave.

IT’S ALMOST misleading to call Sergei Parajanov’s extraordinary film a Soviet one. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more political statement made in the history of cinema, and given the personal consequences on Parajanov, let alone the film’s political intent, the film is as anti-Soviet as you can get. But then The Colour of Pomegranates couldn’t have been made anywhere but in the Soviet Union, where Parajanov channelled unashamedly nationalistic and Christian motifs in direct opposition to those championed by the Soviet authorities. In other words, this film couldn’t have been made without the repressive conditions Parajanov was screaming against. The film’s almost sealed Armenian nationalism has led to its marginalisation by film critics however. As it requires an intimate knowledge of its subjects, any reviewer not in-tune with the symbolic significance of its tableaux cannot do much beyond give a loose overview of its themes or talk about its aesthetic qualities – but that shouldn’t put off viewers. It’s undeniably one of the greatest films ever made.

The Colour of Pomegranates is about Armenian poet/singer Harutyun Sahakyan (more commonly known as Sayat Nova which means the King of Songs), an eighteenth century artist who would be credited as a Romantic poet if Romanticism wasn’t erroneously considered a Western art innovation. But the film refuses to tell Nova’s life story literally, instead constructing his life through a series of collages, symbols, subjective imagery (the film’s opening mentions very little is known about Nova). Each image looks like an icon painting, the link to medieval Christian art explicit. Similar to Parajanov’s other 60s masterpiece, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, Pomegranates is a film you feel. The images carry some sort of magnetic charge – you feel, hear, taste, smell the film rather than simply see it. Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors was a remarkably free film, with almost unfettered camerawork and moods. This is much more rigorous in its shot construction and style – flat 2-D images which are breathtaking in their beauty and hypnotic power.

But the film is also about the artist Parajanov. Parajanov’s first wife was murdered by her relatives soon after marrying Parajanov (for converting to Christianity), and this element of loss forms part of Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors’ narrative. The Colour of Pomegranates was immediately banned by Soviet authorities, and released in 1971 in the Soviet Union in a version cut by a hack director. He was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for five years for trumped up charges of homosexuality (he had previously spent time in jail for homosexuality in the late 1940s). His early death in 1990 was attributed to the conditions of his times in labour camps. Parajanov is no doubt influenced by his good friend Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966) whose film used a tortured observer of yesteryear to critique contemporary Soviet society (and whose character could only achieve spiritual transcendence through art). Like Tarkovsky, Parajanov examines the solitude of an artist. Casting himself as Nova, Parajanov expresses his personal suffering through the poet and his words, his conflicts with his sexuality (for example, Nova is portrayed as both male and female) and his role as an artist.

Further, the film also expresses the solitude of his home country, Armenia, whose national character was subsumed by the Soviet machinery. Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity, so its religious roots run deep (and clearly conflict with the atheistic Soviet state). Armenia has also been a country trapped in-between conflict, and suffered considerably in the 20th century, so the images of repression, suffering, and transcendence would have had considerable resonance. It also has distinctive Armenian architecture, dance, carpets, food (for example, nshkhar the bread used for Holy Communion, and matagh, the meat of sacrificed animals – which is a synthesis of Armenia’s ‘pagan’ and Christian pasts and carries religious significance – appear as key motifs), costumes and language – and the film emphasises this uniqueness. Pomegranates’s non-twentieth century setting, also draws attention to the ‘Armenian-ness’ of the film, a setting removed from the Turkish and Soviet influences on Armenia. Its English title refers to the pomegranate, which is Armenia’s national fruit. The opening image is a pomegranate bleeding in the pattern of the old kingdom of Armenia. It is also symbolic of fertility, and Parajanov’s daring opening image is a fierce ‘reminder’ of latent Armenian nationalism. But the final images, of Nova’s songs ringing and echoing through the space, highlight Parajanov’s view of the transcendence of suffering through art and culture – and in the process Parajanov gives voice to an artist and a country which had suffered for long enough.