The Colour of Pomegranates [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Second Sight
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th January 2018).
The Film

Harutyun Sayatyan was an Armenian troubadour, or ashugh, who composed songs in Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Persian, and would come to be known as Sayat-Nova (Persian for "king of songs"). Born to Armenian carpet weavers in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, he performed in the royal court of King Heraclius II where he also performed diplomatic work including forging an alliance between Georgia, Armenia, and Shirvan (later Azerbaijan) cementing his historical and cultural reputation with the Transcaucasus even though he would fall out of favor with the king when he fell in love with his sister Princess Ana. He was ordained as a priest in the Armenian Apostolic Church in 1759 and would be executed in 1795 at Haghpat Monastery by the invading Persian forces when he refused to convert from Christianity to Islam.

The film The Colour of Pomegranates roughly charts these events, but it does so in a series of tableaux inspired by medieval miniature paintings in which the camera remained locked down while character and objects went through motions like clockwork figures. The poet as a boy (Melkon Alekyan) being comforted from nightmares by his parents (Spartak Bagashvili and Medea Japaridze) uses an ornate window in the foreground to suggest a framed icon. The environs of his childhood spark his imagination towards the music as his parents go through the motions of letting bundles of dyed cotton drip down on metal platters like a drumbeat and he hears rain that is not present as his father instructs him to cherish the written word while the monks dry out books on the rooftops of the monastery. In the king's court, as the poet as a young man watches the Princess Ana – both played by Sofiko Chiaureli (The Wishing Tree) in the manner of Iranian paintings of lovers with the same face representing the union of souls – in the repetitive actions of lace-making, a shot of his Kamancheh under a torrent of mother of pearl fragments creates a sense of erotic tension by bringing the viewer back to a rhyming image of the poet as a boy's spying the bared breasts of a woman at the bathhouse under a torrent of milk, one of her breasts covered by a large shell. The ordination of the poet as a monk (Vilen Galstyan) finds him baptizing himself as an infant. As an old man (Gogi Gegechkori), his execution by decapitation is visualized by the Angel of Resurrection (also Chiureli) pouring a vase of blood-red pomegranate juice from a vase onto his throat and chest. Lyrics from the poet's songs are quoted in the dialogue, voiceover, and onscreen text. Musical accompaniment to the songs is quoted throughout by composer composer Tigran Mansurian, and song recordings are also looped and sometimes submitted to electronic processing for effect. Although the director had experimented with tableaux and pantomime in preparation for earlier projects, the locked down camera style and even lighting was rumored to have been an effort by him to assert full creative control in response to disagreements with Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors cinematographer Yuri Ilyenko who claimed that his camerawork made the film.

Sergei Parajanov was born in Tbilisi in 1924 of Armenian descent. He would attend a Russian school and would then study voice and violin before attending VGIK (Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) for film school. Although he was eight years older than Andrei Tarkovsky, he would come to regard the other man as his mentor after seeing Ivan's Childhood. Although Parajanov would achieve similar international recognition as Tarkovsky with his fourth feature film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, his subsequent proposed projects would move towards even more experimental storytelling that alienated censors and producers: the screen tests for his unmade film Kiev Frescoes that he turned into a short of the same title show him experimenting with tableau compositions, pantomime, and dream imagery. His next feature film Sayat Nova took enough creative liberties with the life of the poet that prints of the Armenian cut had a disclaimer attached to the start of the film informing viewers that they should not look for an account of the poet's life but a cinematic visualization of his inner world while prints of the Russian version (retitled The Colour of Pomegranates as it is popularly known in most territories) described the contents as a visualization of the content of the songs; either way, the events sketched in the film not only had their analogs in the life of Sayat Nova while the director also admitted that it contained elements of his own autobiography. Already the target of political attacks that made it had to get projects off the ground – it is speculated in one of the Daniel Bird documentary The World Is a Window: Making 'The Colour of Pomegranates' that GOSINKO (USSR State Committee for Cinematography) backed Parajanov on the film not just because of his success with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors but also to rehabilitate themselves in light of negative comments made about their organization by another prominent filmmaker who had recently worked with them – he would be arrested in 1973 and sentenced to five years of hard labor for rape, homosexual acts, and the propagation of pornography. The sentence prompted an international campaign for his release with letters requesting his release from Tarkovksy, Godard, Fellini, Truffaut, Buñuel, Antonioni, and other figures in filmmaking and other arts. He was released after four years but found his further attempts to mount productions blocked before he was arrested again in 1982 on charges of bribery. Although he was given another stiff sentence, he would be freed again within a year. It was not until 1985 that he was able to make another film with The Legend of Suram Fortress, a retelling of a Georgian folk tale that received international acclaim, followed by his Mikhail Lermontov adaptation Ashik Kerib, both of which carried over and evolved the techniques set forth in The Colour of Pomegranates. He died in 1990 while working on his final film The Confession, the surviving footage of which was assembled posthumously by filmmaker Mikhail Vartanov and featured in his documentary Parajanov: The Last Spring.

The Colour of Pomegranates was more heard about than seen in the seventies, and mostly in the context of Parajanov's imprisonment, and when it was released theatrically in the United Kingdom and the United States in the eighties, it was its so-called Russian version recut by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich (Lenin v Polshe) that removed some quotations from the Book of Genesis, removed and reordered some scenes, and tried to structure the film as the Sayat Nova biopic, replacing the original version's quotations between sequences with eight chapter headings. Although an imprisoned Parajanov was displeased with Yutkevich's actions, critic Tony Rayns in his appreciation piece for the film revealed that Parajanov later admitted that the attempts to make the film more acceptable to Soviet censors was responsible for getting the film more widely seen. The chapter headings and their subtitles are as helpful to the viewer unfamiliar with the life of Sayat Nova as a potted biography; and one can re-view the Armenian version with a better understanding of the imagery, but a viewing without the context may prove just as stimulating to fans of cinematic visual stylists. While Parajanov collaborator Levon Grigoryan opined in his 2006 documentary short Memories About Sayat Nova that Parajanov's original version was unsalvageable apart from the video master because of the recut negative, the World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna's 4K restoration on this Blu-ray set makes both versions accessible for scrutiny and reappraisal.


As mentioned in the review, The Colour of Pomegranates exists in two cuts, with the once more prominent Russian cut having been screened in the UK by Sovfilmexport in the seventies and a "wider" release in 1983 by Poseidon Films. While the Armenian cut started making the rounds in the nineties, it was the Russian cut that Second Sight originally released to DVD in 2011 while the Armenian version was released on DVD in the US by Kino Video separately and in a four-disc boxed set packaged with Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors and separate discs of their separate double billing of The Legend of Suram Fortress/Ashik Kerib.

Disc one of the Second Sight set features both the Armenian cut (79:44) and the Russian cut (72:42) of the film. The Armenian cut was reconstructed by the World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna utilizing a 4K scan of the original camera negative which was recut into the Russian version with the footage not included in that version integrated from a scan of a 35mm dupe negative of the Armenian version with titles recreated using a 35mm release print as a guide. The Russian version was preserved for posterity utilizing the aformentioned scan. Both cuts are presented in 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen encodes that are incredible revlations of a film that was visually striking even in its older video masters. Detail is spectacular - especially thanks to the film's static compositions, even lighting, and fixed focus - revealing heretofore unseen textures like the lace embroidered patterns on the princess' gloves that looked pure black in the older masters. The reintegrated footage is hard to pick out although it is pointed out in the featurettes.


Audio options for both are a clean LPCM 2.0 mono Armenian/Georgian track with clear dialogue and bold music underscore in which plucked strings and other instruments feel very present in the room even through a center speaker or stereo pair. Optional English subtitles are provided for both cuts.


The aformentioned Second Sight DVD and Kino Video DVD both had exclusive featurettes that have, for the most part, been compiled here along with a handful of new extras. The Armenian version is accompanied by a new annotated subtitle commentary by academic James Steffen, author of "The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov" while the Russian version carries over the UK DVD's audio commentary by cultural anthropologist Levon Abrahamyan. Both tracks cover some of the same biographical and production information while the Steffens commentary is most instructive in discussing the symbolism of the imagery (squashed grapes representing poetry's transforming words into wine, for isntance), pointing out the use of Sayat Nova song lyrics and musical accompaniment throughout, as well as the footage that was not included in the Russian version or the audio that was altered. The Abrahamyan commentary also provides discussion of the film's rhyming images, the sound and music editing, and Chiaureli as Parajanov's muse from that point on (including mention of an unfinished project written specifically for her).

The second Blu-ray disc features the bulk of the extras starting with a new 2K restoration of Parajanov's "Kiev Frescoes" (11:40), a short feature built from screen tests shot for the unmade titular feature project which the optional annotated subtitle commentary by Daniel Bird reveals is puportedly a short film comemorating the Great Patriotic War but its use of tableaux, pantomime, and shared dreams can be seen as a forerunner for the techniques he would employ in The Colour of Pomegranates. "Poetry, Pomegranates and Parajanov" (9:14) is a new visual essay by Bird that looks at the director's earlier work and how it influenced the feature (particularly the employment of one shot, no movement, and flat lighting) compared to the more dynamic camerawork of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors for reasons illuminated below. "Pomegranates Rediscovered" (8:40) is a featurette with Cecilia Penciarelli of Bologna Cineteca on the multi-national efort to save the film who describes the project from Martin Scorcese's recommendation through tracking down the elements and the restoration. Most interesting is her anecdote about how they were able to take advantage of the Russian lab's new 4K scanner to scan the negative in return for providing L'Immagine Ritrovata technicians to train the Russian photochemical technicians on digital techniques and utilizing the Armenian dupe negative for digitally recreating the Armenian cut with the Russian negative while relying on a 35mm projection print from the Harvard Film Archive for the grading. "Free Parajnov!" (11:40) is a piece narrated by Tony Rayns on the splash made by Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and the ensuing news that reached international critics about the director's imprisonment and the poliltical and legal charges that appeared to be more of a "smokescreen" for the apparent actual persecution for his sexuality. Rayns also discusses Parajanov's personality through anecdotes of his touring with the film after his release (including regaling Allen Ginsberg in the front row of a screening about which cast and crew members he had managed to bed).

Carried over from the UK DVD is Bird's documentary "The World is a Window: The Making of the Colour of Pomegranates" (75:59) featuring Steffens and Emory University film teacher Karla Oeler as well as suriviving Parajanov collaborators - anthropologist Abrahamyan, production designer Stepan Andranikyan, assistant director Grigoryan, composer Mansurian, Chiaureli (in a 2006 French interview), and photographer Yuri Mechitov - on Parajanov's childhood and eduction as well as the film from conception throught reception. Interesting points include a discussion of the difference between prosaic and poetic cinema, the use of genuine religious relics in the production, and Parajanov's disagreements with Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors cinematographer Ilyenko that lead to him adapting the tableau style and even experiencing difficulties with Colour credited cinematographer Suren Shakhbazyan with the director readusting the camera position during breaks. "Memories About Sayat Nova" (31:33) is a television special with assistant director Grigoryan's providing his own reflections on the shoot over extracts from the feature's rushes. "Parajanov: A Requiem" (59:06) is a 1994 compilation of the final video interview that was shot in 1988 during a filmmaking workshop given by the director at the Munich Film Festival. Sadly not provided for review is the limited edition perfect-bound 114-page book featuring Martin Scorcese introduction, archive material, new writings, costume designs, storyboards and the original literary script.


While Parajanov collaborator Levon Grigoryan opined in his 2006 documentary short that Parajanov's original version was unsalvageable apart from the video master because of the recut negative, the World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna's 4K restoration on this Blu-ray set makes both versions accessible for scrutiny and reappraisal.


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