Deep Red: Joanne Nucho on The Color of Pomegranates
Steeped in religious iconography, The Color of Pomegranates is a deeply spiritual testament to director Sergei Parajanov’s fascination with Armenian folk art and culture. It is also a controversial work, which, coupled with another of his films, Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors, led to his arrest and imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag for four years. The Soviets insisted he was guilty of selling gold and icons illegally and committing “homosexual acts.” In reality, his only crime was offending the tenets of socialist realism, both in his daring surrealistic form and in his choice of subject matter. While many of the popular films of this era in Soviet cinema were largely propaganda designed to serve the ideological interests of the regime, Parajanov chose to focus on the ethnography and spirituality of the Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.
The Color of Pomegranates is a poetic, dreamlike film that sought to portray the life of Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova through images inspired by his life and poetry. Born Haroutiun Sayakian, he is remembered as Sayat Nova or “king of songs.” Raised in the Georgian city of Tiflis (as was Sergei Parajanov himself), Sayat Nova performed in the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Persian languages. This brought him fame beyond the Armenian community and he was summoned to serve as Court Musician and Poet by Heracle II, the 18th- century king of Georgia. After falling in love with the king’s sister, Princess Anna, he was expelled from the court. He spent the rest of his life as a monk where he continued to write poetry and music. To the Armenian people, Sayat Nova is considered a martyr because he was executed by the invading Persians for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.
Parajanov’s decision to make a film about the life of an Armenian poet and martyr was a dangerous one. Armenian national identity was not to be prioritized—it was viewed as only a part of the Soviet Union. The idea of Armenian independence and secession from the Soviet Union was still dangerous and punishable by death. The lack of a Soviet presence, or any other typical themes of the propaganda films of the time, marked The Color of Pomegranates as a subversive work.
The text of the film, the poetry of Sayat Nova, and the life of director Sergei Parajanov are all reflections of the Armenian national identity, which is itself deeply connected to the Christian faith, as they were the first “nation” in the world to adopt the religion, in the year 301. Surrounded by largely Muslim populations, they were an easy target for invasion and subjugation by their neighbors. The paradigm of Christianity, the images of the suffering of Christ and subsequent salvation—most recently exacerbated by the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey at the beginning of the last century—are at the core of Armenian individuality.
So what is the color of pomegranates? As the film opens, we see thorns intercut with images of pomegranates soaking a white cloth with their juice, a deep blood red. Then we see a dagger resting upon this same, stained cloth. A voice reads from the poetry of Sayat Nova: “I am a man whose soul is tormented.” In Armenian mythology, the pomegranate was a symbol of fertility, literally fruitfulness—it is said that a ripe pomegranate contains 365 seeds, one for each day of the year. The thorns are those of the crown that Christ wore as he suffered on the cross. The two are inseparable, bound closely by the image of bloodshed, the inevitable fate of the Armenian people—here there is only sacrifice and suffering. Later in the film a priest wearing the traditional black garb of the Armenian apostolic church utters “heaven has deemed that sorrow be our lot.” With the camera set at a distance, the monks gather before him, also cloaked in black, shroud-like robes fall on their knees. Everywhere there is death, darkness, disaster—and yet, a feeling that the biggest disaster, the ultimate catastrophe is still to come.
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