Still an incredibly shy man who immersed himself in the eternal comfort of the arts, I was 22 when I first discovered the work of Sergei Parajanov. Having developed a love of film early on in life, I amassed what I thought to be a vast knowledge of cinema. I was introduced to Parajanov by chance, whilst reading an article on the cinema of the Caucasus. Being inquisitive by nature, I soon sought out his 1969 film, The Colour of Pomegranates, and discovered within it a lustrous, hypnotic celluloid fantasy, replete with evocative sentiments and powerful imagery.
A few years later, at the age of 24, Parajanov slipped into the recesses of my mind. Only recently did he appear again, when I was invited to a screening of Pomegranates in London. I hadn’t imagined what thoughts and feelings would emerge when I began to reacquaint myself with him. My first feelings were those of amazement, as I witnessed again his seemingly effortless invocation of another world, as if it were a tapestry stitched with metaphor and brocaded with rich symbolism. There are many moments in the film that leave indelible marks, possibly as a result of Parajanov’s use of poetry and its connection to its inspiration, the legendary Armenian poet Sayat Nova.
Like a poem or artwork come to life, Parajanov’s Pomegranates – which resulted in a fall from grace in the eyes of the Soviets – took cinema into a completely different sphere, defying convention without plunging himself into a miasma of philosophical confusion. Of course, one could easily place the director in the grand pantheon of avant-garde cinema; but it is impossible, perhaps, to define or categorise such a director as Parajanov. I am the man whose life and soul are torture; Nova’s words, which Parajanov uses to commence the film, clearly communicate that what one is about to see won’t pull any punches. The biographical dimension aside, Pomegranates provides a telling of Armenia’s struggle against cultural oppression.
In Pomegranates, Parajanov mixed a flurry of poetic, spiritual, nationalist, and psychological ingredients to create a unique, individual voice and cinematic language he had already begun to fashion in 1965 with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which broke away from the stifling constraints of socialist realism. The crowning touch, one might argue, is the film’s arresting visuals, where aspects of symbolism come into play. From the grandiose and over-the-top to the intimate and diminutive, there is much focus on inanimate objects, which each come together, yet have separate roles to play. Distinct Armenian imagery serve as symbols of Armenia’s cultural defiance, and how it has taken the foreign to make it its own, such as Russian and Iranian.
Through his films and in his life, Parajanov fought against the Soviet regime as well as for a sense of cultural freedom by exploring both himself as an intellectual and a man, along with issues surrounding Armenian history, culture, and nationalism. Shortly after the release of Pomegranates, disdain towards Parajanov by Soviet authorities grew increasingly virulent, and in 1973, the director was sent to Siberia to serve four years of a five-year sentence for a trumped-up charges of raping a Soviet official. Although his time up north changed him, his creativity never diminished, even in such extreme conditions. A sense of home and his Armenian identity always, until the end, remained at the core of his heart.
Although originally composed by Tigran Mansurian, Parajanov’s classic now boasts a contemporary, alternative soundtrack. Written and performed by American-Chilean musician Nicolas Jaar, far from what many would at the outset consider to be blasphemous, the new score fits beautifully into the spirit of Parajanov. Injecting a deep sense of atmospheric emotion, one gets the feeling while listening to it that they are experiencing something special, something belonging to another dimension – not unlike the film that inspired Jaar, to begin with.