One of the key components to any film viewing experience is cultural context. I've had trouble with certain films before, like Bela Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies," because I felt that I didn't have enough background information to understand the meaning and significance of many of its elements. I couldn't identify the setting, the time period, or even a baseline of normal behavior for the characters. So I was wary of "The Color of Pomegranates," which I understood to be a symbolism-heavy look into the life of the 18th century Armenian mystic poet and musician, Sayat Nova. Again, my knowledge of the subject matter was non-existent. Was I doomed to another round of wrestling with impenetrable imagery and confounding scenarios? Yes, but in a good way.
The opening title cards inform the viewer that "The Color of Pomegranates" is a biopic of Sayat Nova, but one which strives to reflect his inner world. Thus, everything in the film is an abstraction, though it is structured by the universal arc of the human experience from infancy to old age, along with the occasional interstitial card to inform us when we are moving from one segment of Sayat Nova's life to the next. Otherwise, the film is a succession of images and tableaux, often very simple but exquisitely composed by Russian director Sergei Parajanov. Here, we see the poet as a boy, holding a seashell against his face. Then, workers lined up in a row, dyeing wool. The imagery is often unfamiliar and archaic, but there is a sense that Parajanov is introducing us to this world, rather than thrusting it upon us. In the earlier sequences, where Sayat Nova is a child, we see more universal symbols of home and family, and many of the tableaux are repeated with variations. A single actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, plays no less than six roles. This establishes an underlying sense of rhythm and order, perhaps to suggest the form of Sayat Nova's poetry and songs.
I couldn't stop marveling over the visuals, which present objects, people, and places from the life of the poet. There is often an extreme stylization and artificiality to the images, in the way things are posed and displayed for us in various configurations, but the subjects themselves never come across as anything less than genuine. Some segments almost feel like a catalog of items from the Armenian culture of the time, and the viewer is invited to marvel over them one by one. Specific places are represented more often than they are shown as full environments, sometimes by a facade or an arrangement of figures. Also, I've never seen color used the way it is here. Red and other colored objects appear repeatedly, and the colors feels like natural, inherent properties of every lamp and costume and setting we see. But through color, and through the organic pattern and rhythm of their recurrence, certain objects and images take on additional significance in the larger whole of each sequence. The effect is mesmerizing.
Obviously those who know more about the life of Sayat Nova, and who are more familiar with the workings of his world will get more out of the film. It was only after I'd finished my viewing and was reading up on the production that I started to connect certain images to the actual events from the life of the poet. That was the monastery where he spent his later years. There was the royal court where he gained and lost favor. Perhaps the woman we see again and again was his unattainable love. And yet, while watching the film I didn't feel like I was missing anything. The film was so impressionistic and dreamlike, and could be appreciated and interpreted in so many different ways, not being able to follow the intended narrative didn't have much negative impact. "The Color of Pomegranates" could have been about an entirely fictional character, and it still would have had much of the same effect.
It's difficult to compare "Pomegranates" to any other films that I'm familiar with, because of its level of abstraction and subject matter. There is barely any dialogue and nothing that could be called a performance from any of the actors. Perhaps this is why the film hardly seems like a film at all. It often feels much closer to traditional paintings and medieval artwork, with its use of static images and religious iconography. In any case, "The Color of Pomegranates" is a unique marvel, and well worth seeking out.