To call Sergei Parajanov's 1969 masterpiece "The Color of Pomegranates" a dense film is a vast understatement. I will be full in my disclosure that the film's release on Blu-Ray from Criterion is not only my first viewing of the film, but my first introduction to Parajanov. The film itself was a source of controversy upon release, drawing the ire of Soviet Communists, resulting in a ban and eventual re-editing by Sergei Yutkevich, leaving the film six-minutes shorter than its directors intended vision. At its most basic core, "The Color of Pomegranates" is an interpretation of the life of Sayat-Nova, an Armenian poet and musician who lived in the 1700s. In a fashion fitting the subject, Parajanov conveys the major thematic points of Sayat-Nova's life through living poetry, breaking the film into solitary segments that represent the progression form birth and childhood to death. The film, while containing dialogue for punctuated narrative effect, could easily be viewed devoid of language, as Parajanov's visuals are striking and while incredibly abstract, especially on initial viewings, still convey a tremendous level of humanity.
While running only 78-minutes, "The Color of Pomegranates" is a visually stunning and intellectually whirlwind. Parajanov's style is largely based on metaphor and imagery; on initial viewing, it's a generally reasonable task to pull large themes of, development, conflict, and religion from the multiple living tapestries that comprise every scene of the film. Performances are exaggerated for dramatic effect and the film itself truly feels like a poem come to life. I must confess, my knowledge of Sayat-Nova's life, let alone Armenian history is non-existent, so there's an added level of depth that was completely lost upon me, but Parajanov's exquisite attention to detail and masterful use of the camera, allow me to understand a journey of childhood innocence that is perpetuated by a sense of longing and permeation of the power of art throughout. The casting of Sofiko Chiaureli in multiple roles including not only an adolescent Sayat-Nova but his later life's love, is a brilliant artistic decision that allows the notion of the familiar guiding one's life choices.
On a basal level, Parajanov's set-design is worth the price of admission alone; under close scrutiny, it's obvious some sequences are shot in entirely different locations, with Parajanov focusing more on a specific look and feel than a narrative cohesion. Likewise, his use of color is breathtaking and thanks to the restored transfer, the film is a stunning visual masterpiece and lesson in artistic design. Overall, the film is entirely enjoyable on as a treat for the senses and need not be burdened by an intense over-analysis which would inevitably detract from the surreal tone of the films' numerous sequences. That's not to say the film shouldn't be studied; it absolutely should be, however as a first-time viewer, I can't imagine taking in the entire package in any other fashion and I suspect my subsequent viewings will still find a focus on the aesthetic experience as opposed to decoding the overall metaphor.
I don't hesitate to call Parajanov's "The Color of Pomegranates" a masterpiece of filmmaking; it's bold and audacious, owing the viewing no explanation. It delights in a way only a master artist can; it stands on its own visual merits while still holding a deeper meaning that comes to light through greater understanding of the source material.
The 1.37:1 original aspect ratio transfer is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original film. There's a lengthy set of notes that are displayed on screen prior to the film's opening that explain how the registration was completed and it strikes me a as pure labor of love, brining Parajanov's original vision to the masses for the first time in decades.
The film sports a healthy level of natural grain; the transfer itself shows no notable signs of degradation or wear. On a color perspective, the film is striking and bold, with Parajanov's color palette showing off in a strikingly consistent fashion from start to finish. Contrast is sharp and natural, with detail at a phenomenal level. This is one of the finer "vintage" restorations I've seen and astonishing given the films' origins and effort required to bring it to Blu-Ray in this fashion.
The mono Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian audio track is perfectly serviceable. While the film is a visual masterpiece, the use of sound is mostly relegated to the score, which sounds a little flatter than one might expect. Dialogue is bold when utilized and overall well-balanced amidst the soundscape. English subtitles are included.
While the film itself is undoubtedly as much a complex exercise in understanding and decoding as it is a visual treat, Criterion has gone all out with some of the most rich and useful special features I've seen in a long time.
First up is a feature-length commentary track from Tony Rayns a filmmaker and critic; Rayns admits from the get-go that the task of explaining Parajanov's masterpiece is a steep task and requires not only a great understanding of the artistic decisions, but the life of Sayat-Nova, Parajanov, and Armenian history. Rayns does a remarkable job of explaining what is going on in the film on multiple levels, while still leaving more for viewers to decode on their own in future viewings, using his commentary as a guide post.
Other bonus features include the film's original behind-the-scenes documentary "The Color of the Armenian Land" from 1969, a 45-minute video essay from James Steffen going into the film's rich use of symbols, as well as interview with Steffen. There are also two documentaries, one a 1977 vintage French offering on the life of Sayat-Nova and the second a 2003 offering on Parajanov himself. Both provide fascinating context for the film as a whole. Rounding out the extras are an experimental documentary titled the "Last Film" and a written essay inside the case by Ian Christie.
Overall, Criterion has spared no effort in turning the release of "The Color of Pomegranates" into a technically sound presentation and mini-scholarly study.
"The Color of Pomegranates" is an absolutely stellar release from Criterion. Not only does the film itself, which is a visual triumph and rich abstract exploration into the art and history of Sayat-Nova, satisfy, but the fantastic technical presentation and bountiful offering of insight via the extras make this release a must-own for any fan of the medium as art. Criterion's plethora of analysis via commentary, documentary, and visual essay make this release a mini-classroom in the deconstruction of a complex and worthy cinematic subject. DVD Talk Collector Series