In 1938, poet Antonin Artaud wrote his famous polemic, The Theater and its Double, in which he bemoaned the fact that contemporary theater was so bound to the written word, and called for a radicalization of theater that stressed at atavistic return to the theater’s origins of ritual. Audiences watching ritual Balinese Theater, for example, could interpret the most symbolic images intuitively without text, and Artaud proposed a new ritual theater. While this fascinating idea has really never taken root in the theater, there have been a few brave souls who have tried to adapt a similar aesthetic to film. And perhaps no other filmmaker was more inclined to let the most arcane images speak literally for themselves then the late Sergei Paradzhanov.
Paradzhanov, who died in 1990, was an Armenian director who gained some international acclaim with his stylized Ukrainian folk tales in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), but when he made The Color of Pomegranates in 1968, his highly poetic visions caused a major stir within the Kremlin. Paradzahnov’s film was considered dangerous enough to Soviet “realism” with its relentless Christian iconography that it was not shown outside the Soviet Union until the `70s, while Paradzhanov himself was sent to a gulag. What the Kremlin saw and suppressed was a valiant effort to portray poetry directly in images without the intermediary of a traditional screenplay.
The film is a series of tableaux based on the writings of 18th century Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova (the film’s true title is indeed Sayat Nova). In a series of meticulously composed frames, the static camera shoots a loosely connected series or surreal, poetic images that tell the life story of the poet. We first see him as a young boy being taught a love for books in a domed library whose roof is covered with books, their pages open and blowing in the wind. He watches his parents work at looms dying fabric the titular blood red color that pervades nearly every scene.
We see his sexual confusion early on, when as a boy he watches men through the portal of a public bath. When he reaches adulthood the sexual confusion intensifies, and throughout the film we see his female ideal – his muse and his protector – who bears a striking resemblance to the poet, and who in effect becomes his female alter ego. He becomes a poet and traveling troubadour, but his impressions of the world are only ones of despair and unhappiness. He sees the world as a place of death, and as a result, he joins a monastery where he becomes a priest and performs marriages and funerals. He lives to old age in the monastery, visited by the images and figures from his childhood, until his death.
The story presented is the model of simplicity, but the images are a different story. Like religious icons come to life, Paradzhanov’s images are stuffed with the arcane symbols of religion poetry: the silver seashells of femininity, the golden spheres of childhood, and there are roosters everywhere. It’s a difficult film to grapple with, in that Paradzhanov presupposes an ignorance of Nova’s poetry and the audience is left to sort out the allegories for themselves on a purely intuitive level. The overall effect is much like walking through a museum and seeing paintings that chronicle specific historical events; we can guess much of their meaning without having to identify specific images. In that regard, this is an extraordinarily difficult film.
On a purely visual level, it’s stunning. It recalls Pier Paolo Pasolini’s framed images in the style of Giotto frescoes in his film of Boccacio’s The Decameron or his recreations of Bosch in his Canterbury Tales. Most of the images here are exquisite: a burial where a church fills up with sheep (borrowed from one of Luis Bunuel’s most famous images from The Exterminating Angel), a wonderful scene where a silver-painted warrior fells an image of the Virgin Mary, and a scene where workmen harvest wheat off the Monastery roof with scythes, wheat falling like rain. And plenty of roosters. Living roosters, dead roosters, roosters raining down on the poet as he dies (Jodorowsky cribbed this image for his Santa Sangre).
Cinema is often spoken of as a poetry of images, but film rarely achieves that. Even more than Tarkovsky, Paradzhanov comes closest to a pure, cinematic poetry – this film can be seen as the Armenian counterpart to Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet – and the purity of his filmmaking makes this a singular film experience.