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Saturday, 8 October 2011

New-to-me Directors: Sergei Parajanov

 With my previous post detailing my aim to see at least one film of the many acclaimed directors I had missed out on, I embarked on a large project. And I've decided to keep track of it through this blog, every time I watch my first film of one of the directors listed, I shall review it here and express my first impressions of the director. This should prove to be a most interesting project and will help me keep track of my progress.
It may also be a rather uneven project, as I have also many other films than those included in this project to watch, as well as various other projects and of course, work. But I'll do my best, and we'll see how this turns out.
I'll also update the original post each time I cross one director off the list, links to the reviews will be found there.

The Colour Of Pomegranates (1968) is the film I chose to mark my first encounter with the work of Armenian director Sergei Parajanov. It is widely considered his masterpiece, as well as one of the most visually magnificent films in Cinema. As this is the first film I've seen of his, I can't comment on the former statement, but the latter is certainly true.

Before I start lavishing praise upon this film, I think I should point out some aspects of the film that I think some viewers may find off putting. This film can best be described as an experimental film. That, combined with it's age, would probably be enough to put off several people, but I'm sure hearing it described as one of the most visually remarkable films ever made would encourage most film buffs to seek it out. And I can assure you that if that is the case you will not be disappointed. However you must bear in mind, that there is little dialogue, and all sound effects are dubbed over in a most disorientating and rudimentary fashion, silent era style intertitles are used at times and certain phrases are repeated many times in a row. There is no narrative to speak of, and all the action happens for the camera in a way that I've never experienced in a film before. This, added to the fact that camera never moves throughout the entire film, makes it inevitable that many viewers would be horribly bored by this film.

I will confess that I was far from riveted to my seat during this film, but it did have a certain mesmerising atmosphere, that inspired in me a sense that I was watchign something truly great, Cinema at it's purest form. Perhaps not the most exciting stuff, but remarkable nonetheless. This ability to arrest your attention even though you cannot make much sense of what you are seeing, at least on an intellectual level, is not something you come across in many films. It has a very slow pace, and portrays a culture that is very far removed from own, and furthermore it portrays this culture in a way that I've never seen before on film. There were no attempts to draw foreigners in, to dazzle and amaze them with such an alien culture, why still provide them with a grounding point, as in a character or a plot point that is familiar to them, so as not to completely shut them out, instead this felt very much like a film made by Armenians for Armenians, an attempt to preserve their history and culture on film, and it wasn't preserved for foreigners like me, but for their own people. of course I can look upon it from the point of view of the film student that I am, and marvel at it, yet it will never effect me in a way that it might someone who identifies, or desires strongly to identify, with the culture depicted here.
Ultimately, this is such a unique film with such strikingly magnificent visuals that all other aspects are secondary, and this is fine as all other aspects are better off in a secondary place as they are rather underdeveloped. In other films this would be unacceptable, but as is proved nearly every time you review a "different" film, it's impossible to judge all films you come across on the same standards. Films like this need a rating scale all of their own, purely because they are so unique, there is absolutely nothing out there like them, and this is one of the main reasons that this film succeeds.

The Colour Of Pomegranates tells of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova, but rather than employing a standard narrative driven tale in an attempt to explain the life and times of Sayat Nova, Parajanov instead portrays the poetic and spiritual sides to the man, and little else. It is not a biographical film.
After watching this film, I do not know any more about Sayat Nova than I did beforehand, in terms of hard facts, such as date of birth etc... But it does offer a fascinating view into both Parajanov's imagination, as well as Sayat Nova's spiritual influences.

As the director said, the films' visual style was inspired by the traditional Armenian religious iconography.
This explains the bizarre shots that make up this film, all the actors face the camera, generally either in wide full body shots, or close ups of their faces and act towards the camera instead of interacting with each other and creating scenes through this while the camera appears invisible to them.
I got the impression of a carefully and methodically staged play rather than a conventional film. The term "breaking the fourth wall" might apply, if there was even a sense of a fourth wall in the first place...
More than any other film I have seen, The Colour Of Pomegranates truly is a succession of individual images so strikingly beautiful that they could form a work of art (ie a painting) even taken by themselves. The over used phrase concerning hanging frames of the film on your wall due to their beauty is more applicable here than in any other case I have experienced, even more so than Barry Lyndon or Ran which is saying a lot as those are my favourite films of all time.

It is important to note that background knowledge is crucial when it comes to this film, it is such a cryptic film that is obviously firmly rooted in a culture that is completely alien to most viewers that without a minimum of background knowledge, no sense will be made of it at all.
The film taken on it's own, may be visually remarkable but nothing more. However, when one learns that at the time this was made the Soviets were resolutely trying to stamp out the Armenian culture (and those of other countries in their power) despite it being one of the oldest Christian countries with a particularly eventful past.
Considerable damage had already been done to the countries' culture and sense of identity by the Turks several decades earlier (in their genocidal purges of the Armenians), but thankfully Parajanov made this wonderful film, thus preserving the countries unique practices forever, despite the Soviets various attempts to prevent it's circulation.

All in all, The Colour Of Pomegranates is both a visually unique and deeply spiritual film. It will not fail to impress those willing to stray out of their comfort zones and watch this film, it is a tough watch at times, but ultimately it's a very rewarding experience.
Combine this with it's historical and cultural importance, and you have a undeniably great film.

Sergei Parajanov is definitely a director I will be returning to someday, and hopefully it will be sooner rather than later. I think that Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors will be the next of his films that I'll watch, it looks quite amazing and I'm sure that eventually he will work his way onto my favourite directors list.
He might not be a director who makes easily accessible films that one would watch several times, but I feel that he nonetheless deserves more recognition. For he really is overlooked, it took me a long time of cinema studies to even come across his name, which I think is shame. I'm glad I've found out about him now though, and would highly recommend this film.

Any recommendations concerning this directors' work would be most welcome! And of course feel free to comment on this review, especially if you've seen the film in question!

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