Sergei Parajanov occupies a strange place in public perception; lauded to the high heavens by critics and cinephiles as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, yet seemingly unknown to 99% of the population. Perhaps it is his Armenian background, not exactly a hotbed of household figures. Or maybe it’s because of the censorship and imprisonment that hindered his career? Fortunately Parajanov seems to be gaining some more exposure in recent years; there has been an upswell in interest in lost filmic gems, signaled by Scorsese’s film restorations.
Parajanov certainly deserves his reputation, despite any qualms I might have with some of his work. His films have a visual style almost completely unique to any other; how many filmmakers could you say that about? The Colour of Pomegranates is his most famous film. It is an unconventional biopic of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Instead of telling a traditional story of Nova’s life, traipsing through his ups and downs, Parajanov uses an elliptic editing style, making use of static tableaux shots and poetic flights of fancy.
In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a distinctive story to grasp onto. We begin seeing through a child’s point of view, flashes of colourful daily life in a rustic town. It is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Mirror and the recent The Tree of Life, dwelling on moments of beauty and revelling in Nova’s childlike wonder. Parajanov has little interest in telling a classical story, but creating a piece of work that reflects Nova’s own poetry.
There is little dialogue, and the acting is fairly muted. Having seen a few of Parajanov’s films now, I would say that the performances are less about expressing themselves as human beings, more vessels for Parajanov’s overall vision. Parajanov was influenced by “Armenian illuminated miniatures”, which explains why each frame feels more like a intricate painting than a cinematic image. Costumes and mise en scene are lovingly handcrafted by Parajanov, creating some of the most beautiful frames in cinema.
I have to confess, although Pomegranates is visually stunning, I prefer the swashbuckling, roaming cinematography of Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors, an earlier film. The Kalatozov ( The Cranes Are Flying) style camera work coupled with the mise en scene in that film created some extraordinary sequences. Still, Pomegranates is one of the most distinctive and visually inventive films ever produced; young filmmakers would do well to get educated by it.