Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates)

“From the colors and aromas of this world, my childhood made a poet’s lyre and offered it to me.” Sayat Nova, Armenian poet (1712/22-1795)

Certain images stay with you. They are so indelibly etched into your mind that it’s hard to identify with precision when you have seen them for the first time. I remember the stone ramparts covered with books, their pages turned by the wind, the Persian rugs hanging on the brick walls, and the blue wool in the metal cauldrons. Sometimes my memory plays tricks on me suggesting that these vignettes are from my own life, that I myself have turned those large yellowing pages and smelled the hot, freshly dyed bundles. But, no, they’re scenes from Sayat Nova, a film by Sergei Paradjanov that I saw as a child.

sayat nova1

That I came across it in the Soviet Union of the 80s is unusual. The film was released in the Soviet Union in 1969 in a handful of cinemas and then it disappeared; its surrealism and religious imagery not meshing with the social realist message of the era. Four years later the director, Sergei Paradjanov, was sent to a maximum security prison on outlandish charges, which included “surrealist tendencies.” My stepfather was close with Paradjanov’s son, and perhaps that’s how I saw the film, peaking over their shoulders. Being aware of the director’s tragic fate while watching his masterpiece today makes for a poignant experience.

The film tells the story of an Armenian troubadour-poet Sayat Nova in dream-like sequences and eerie juxtapositions. Born as Harutyun Sayatyan in 1712 (or 1722, the sources don’t agree), in Tbilisi, the poet served King Erekle II of Georgia before becoming a wandering minstrel and later a priest. His poetry, written in Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, and Persian talks of love, personal pilgrimages, loss, wonder and dreams. While the religious context is Orthodox Christian, Sayat Nova’s poetry comes from the same rich mystical tradition as that of the Sufi poets like Rumi and Farid ud-Din Attar. “We were searching for ourselves in each other,” wrote Sayat Nova, and Paradjanov’s marvelously baroque retelling of his life is itself a search.

Just like in mystical poetry where one word can have different meanings and the subtext many nuances, Paradjanov’s film is a series of symbolic images. It’s a film to watch a few times, savoring the colors, ornate costumes and mellifluous Armenian chants. The scenes of the poet and his lover are the most mesmerizing, especially since the two roles are played by the ethereally beautiful Sofiko Chiaureli, Paradjanov’s muse. She weaves lace, the movement of her hands like a dance. She’s looking out at him–and us–through a veil of red filigree. “How am I to protect my wax castles of love from the devouring heat of your fires?”

Paradjanov named his film Sayat Nova, but the Soviet censors renamed it The Color of Pomegranates to distance it from the historical persona; the religious and mystical themes clashed with the communist cloak in which the Soviet establishment dressed the poet. The film was also drastically cut and edited. There have been many efforts to restore Sayat Nova from the bits of film held by different studios in Armenia and Russia, and the final results with their meticulous work are impressive.

The director himself compared his film to a “Persian jewelry case”: “On the outside, its beauty fills the eyes; you see the fine miniatures. Then you open it, and inside you see still more Persian accessories.” I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s exquisite and absurd, moving and haunting in equal measure.

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64 Comments

  • angeldiva: Sounds beautiful! I would love to see it. I love film, I’m an L.A. kid… October 13, 2015 at 7:27am Reply

    • Victoria: A restored version was recently premiered in Brussels, so you should check if theaters around you are showing it. It’s a movie to see on a big screen. October 13, 2015 at 10:33am Reply

  • Michaela: Such a moving post! I imagine this film is a life-time memory from your childhood, melting somehow with your real life.
    The film itself, in its original form, must be great. The director sent to prison for “surrealist tendencies” is so unacceptable and real fate in the soviet era that it just shouldn’t be forgotten. Ever.
    I so love this quote: ‘How am I to protect my wax castles of love from the devouring heat of your fires?’ October 13, 2015 at 7:46am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree. One of the tragedies of the Soviet experiment is how many lives were wrecked and how little about it is known and understood on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
      Paradjanov had one late period before his death when he made two more films. He was released before his full term, mostly thanks to the intercessions of other artists and writers (Yves Saint Laurent also wrote to the Soviet authorities to drop the charges). But he wasn’t allowed to work and lived in object poverty. Towards the end of the 80s he made two films, The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib, both of which are worth watching. Another masterpiece is Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. October 13, 2015 at 10:41am Reply

      • zari: Victoria, if and when you ever have time or interest, it would be cool to see a list of other Russian (Soviet) films to watch, especially what pushed the envelope.

        Also, this is a moving post. I think coming from histories of trauma, certain things become even more poignant and meaningful in our memories. I find it fascinating to read your experience as a child and that of your family within the Soviet Union, and even now with what is happening in Ukraine, and knowing how the Soviet Union, its policies and violence in the region affected my own childhood and the young lives of my parents and other relatives and where we are now. Granted we did not live under the SU like your family, but heavily affected by it (Afghanistan). 🙁 Thanks as always for being personal. October 13, 2015 at 9:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: The truth is that I only notice these dark undercurrents in the retrospect. On the whole, my childhood was very happy and I had a large caring family (two generations of grandparents as well on the maternal side, one loving grandmother on my dad’s side). But as I got older, there were many things that felt wrong or strange or just hypocritical. I remember a teacher telling us at school that we were the luckiest children, because we were born in the Soviet Union, and my friend and I getting home and poring over the German magazines her aunt brought back and saying to each other, “we aren’t that lucky–look at all of the wonderful things German kids have.” 🙂

          Of course, in the mid to late the 80s there were already cracks in the system and people started losing their fear of saying what they thought (some like stepfather never seemed to have it!) But the war in Afghanistan colors my memories of that time, because many Ukrainians were drafted. Many of our friends lost sons, brothers and husbands, who were forcibly drafted. Some small towns in Ukraine lost the majority of their male population, so this war has scarred us heavily. October 14, 2015 at 10:18am Reply

          • Victoria: P.S. Sorry, I nearly missed your first comment. If you haven’t seen Andrei Rublev, I do recommend it. Paradjanov admired it very much. But then again, in the Soviet Union we were much less likely to hear the dissident voices. Once it all fell apart and I left Ukraine, I haven’t felt any desire to explore those films. There was so much of other worlds to discover in the American, French, German, Swedish, Italian, Japanese movie classics. October 14, 2015 at 10:24am Reply

            • Kate: Andrei Rublev is my favourite film ever. An absolute masterpiece, and one of the greatest ever comments on what it means to be an artist, I think. I try to watch it every few years and always find new things in it, to move and inspire me. It’s astonishing to me also that it could get made in Soviet Russia – it seems so subversive.

              I would dearly love to see Sayat Nova, but don’t live anywhere near an art house cinema. I’ll have to see if I can procure a copy somewhere for home viewing. Thanks for writing this, Victoria, it defintely sounds worth seeing. October 15, 2015 at 4:49pm Reply

              • Victoria: It’s another film I have seen as a child but not anytime since then. Yet, I remember it so vividly. If you’re under the spell of “Andrei Rublev,” then you definitely should see “Sayat Nova.” Paradjanov and Tarkovsky were very close, and they were inspired by each other. You will recognize elements from Andrei Rublev in Paradjanov’s film. October 15, 2015 at 5:37pm Reply

  • Nikki: Wonderful review! I saw the movie and have loved pomegranates ever since. There was a restaurant in Chicago called Sayat Nova close to the Hotel Intercontinental on Michigan Avenue.

    How heartbreaking both the Armenian story as well as the punishment of creative and loving people, as a movie like this is certainly a labor of love. Maybe the Armenians will finally get some justice in the International court with the beautiful lawyer Amal Clooney…. October 13, 2015 at 9:30am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a story of many Soviet intellectuals, artists, writers. The uplifting part of Paradjanov’s work is that it transcends the national boundaries. It’s about beauty, dreams, our quest for something greater than ourselves. And Sayat Nova himself wrote in many different languages and his weaving of different traditions together makes his work incredibly rich. October 13, 2015 at 10:44am Reply

  • Malika: A great review, I hope they show it in the states! October 13, 2015 at 10:56am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope so. As I mentioned to Angeldiva, watching it on a big screen is an amazing experience. You really get drawn into the surreal vignettes. October 13, 2015 at 11:12am Reply

      • Kathy: Is the film similar to Kurasawa’s “Dreams?” I found that very moving. I will certainly check this out, if only for the line of poetry you quoted. That quote made me thankful to my parents, who always pointed out little details of nature, scents, and colors to my sister and me when we were little; it was a time when children could wander around unsupervised, too, and collect memories at their own pace. October 13, 2015 at 2:54pm Reply

        • Victoria: To me they’re very different, although what ties them together is a mystical element. I remember watching Kurosawa’s Dreams and Ran at the library video room in college, and it was about the time when on a whim, inspired by a film, I decided to change majors and study Japanese. Seems like it was such a long time ago, but I also remember the scene from Dreams of a little boy walking towards a rainbow.

          Your parents were very wise. My grandmothers played such a role for me. I still remember walking with my paternal grandmother and collecting various scented herbs, roots, pieces of bark, pointing out the patterns on little forest frogs. October 13, 2015 at 3:02pm Reply

  • Jason: I saw this film 10-12 years ago, but now I wonder if I saw the censored version or the original one. I agree that it’s surreal and beautiful. October 13, 2015 at 10:58am Reply

    • Victoria: It might have been the cut version. I’m not even 100% sure of the restored version I saw is complete, since the film was conveniently “lost” by the studios. October 13, 2015 at 11:11am Reply

  • Lynley: Surrealist tendencies huh? It never ceases to astound and disappoint me, the human race’s often fanatical, crazed, blind lust in destroying the beauty of another’s soul. I’ve never understood the lives of people who live without beauty and poetry and imagination, especially when it’s everywhere, just waiting to be noticed so it can bring colour or joy or poignancy to any moment.
    This sounds like my kind of movie, and I’ll seek it out. Thankyou Victoria for sharing this with us. October 13, 2015 at 11:02am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it makes me very angry. So, Paradjanov wanted to make films that were otherworldly and beautiful, not the usual propaganda films about happy collective farm milkmaids and tractor drives. My stepfather told me that at the gulag he was assigned to sew sacks, but he was so creative that he learned to make amazing dolls out of burlap. October 13, 2015 at 11:10am Reply

  • Alicia: Thank you, Victoria, thank you very much.In this fallen world beauty is vulnerable, but somehow it endures. October 13, 2015 at 11:17am Reply

    • Victoria: You said it really well, Alicia. This alone gives hope even in situations when it feels as if nothing is right, as if the whole world has gone mad. October 13, 2015 at 11:28am Reply

  • sajini: Thank you so much for sharing this, Victoria. I looked it up on uTube and there are some sections of it there. It’s in Russian, but I could get a sense of the imagery and it is just mind blowing.
    It reminds me of a movie I saw in the 80’s when I was in Hungary called Narcissus and Psyche. I haven’t been able to track down that movie, but still feel it was the best movie I have ever seen.
    I think Sayat Nova is available to buy on Amazon streaming so I will do that (hopefully there are subtitles) October 13, 2015 at 12:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: The Russian version is a bit amusing, because you can see how the censors are at pains to insist at the very start that the film has nothing to do with the poet. But you still get all of the beautiful images. By the way, the image of books that has stayed with me is at 5:45.

      I think I will buy the Armenian restored version, since this is a film I want to see again and again. October 13, 2015 at 1:12pm Reply

      • sajini: I live in town that has a very big Armenian community, so I found this movie at the library this afternoon. October 14, 2015 at 12:06am Reply

        • Victoria: Wonderful! I envy you discovering it for the first time. This film is very much like opening a jewel box, and every scene is a surprise. October 14, 2015 at 10:29am Reply

    • Gaby: I also love Nárcisz és Psyché. It’s also based on poetry from our Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres’s Psyché. October 13, 2015 at 1:22pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you both for mentioning it. I just read about it online, and I can’t believe I haven’t seen it yet. It sounds like a movie I would enjoy. October 13, 2015 at 2:26pm Reply

  • Karen: I want to have surrealist tendencies. October 13, 2015 at 1:10pm Reply

  • Gaby: Thank you very much for writing, Victoria. I hope I can find the restored version. Also let me say thank you for your blog: It’s my first comment, and I’m happy to find this beautiful place. October 13, 2015 at 1:27pm Reply

    • Victoria: Welcome to Bois de Jasmin, Gaby! I’m happy that you found us. 🙂 October 13, 2015 at 2:28pm Reply

  • Lindaloo: I have to agree with Gaby. It is such a joy to open your posts and find something beautiful, sensuous and intriguing whether a perfume review, a recipe, an experience from your own life or an introduction to some form of artistry.

    Thank you so much for the encouragement to simply notice and experience. October 13, 2015 at 2:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! Your comments made my somewhat stressful day much better. 🙂
      I watched this film a few weeks ago, but I can’t stop thinking about it, so I really wanted to share it. I know that there are others here who appreciate “surrealist tendencies.” October 13, 2015 at 2:30pm Reply

  • Kristin: I don’t know how to link it, but there is a WSJ article today called, ” Treasures of the House of Alba,…” Serendipitously, it features a Fra Angelico called The Virgin of the Pomegranate.” ? October 13, 2015 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Lavanya: What a beautiful post Victoria! The aesthetic of this post and the film fits my current mood perfectly. I am very curious about the Armenian chants you mention.
    I have been in a ‘ghazal’ kind of mood listening to Urdu ghazals (One of my current favorites : Aaj Jaane Ki Zidd na karo by Farida Khanum especially this version : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDJL2FyRDeA which was produced by Coke Studio in Pakistan – the Pakistani version of Coke Studio has been producing some amazing stuff.). October 13, 2015 at 3:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Simply amazing! This ghazal is so poignant and the way Farida Khanum sang it is beyond compare. I first learned about ghazals when watching the film Umrao Jaan (the 1981 version). Even if you can’t understand the language, you can feel the emotions. October 13, 2015 at 3:26pm Reply

      • Lavanya: Isn’t it?!! This version seems even more poignant that her earlier version – her voice is more ‘gravelly’ here which I think adds to the pathos of the lyrics and music.
        Yes – I know you love the songs of Umrao Jaan, that’s why I thought you might enjoy this (if you hadn’t already heard it)..:).

        I grew up listening to this and stuff like this but I am always curious about whether music like this can cross cultural and language barriers (Now this comment is becoming totally OT). Since you had quite a multicultural upbringing (and Persian influences marked this music as well as stuff that you probably also listened to growing up?) – did the ghazal seem familiar to you as a music form?

        I am also very curious about people’s reaction to Carnatic or South Indian Classical music since that might seem even more ‘unfamiliar’ to people who haven’t grown up listening to it. I am actually quite fascinated about how people react to music that is very different from what they listened to growing up. Because Music (like perfume) often elicits such a visceral reaction. Now this is getting even more OT..lol.

        Also do you have any links to the sort of Armenian chants you mentioned were there in this film? October 13, 2015 at 3:49pm Reply

        • Victoria: Here are a couple of links.
          This one is an Armenian Orthodox chant sung by a Canadian-Armenian singer Isabel Bayrakdarian. It’s unearthly beautiful.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JV8_FqMuTCg

          This chant is Georgian. In Georgian it is known as Mamao Chveno, Our Father.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6hnsPTW3aM&feature=youtu.be&list=PL233659A749226D68

          A polyphonic Georgian chant:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_I8xwAJQlMY October 13, 2015 at 4:50pm Reply

          • Lavanya: oh those Georgian chants are so beautiful! Thanks, V! October 15, 2015 at 12:44am Reply

            • Victoria: By the way, I didn’t post the right link as an example of polyphonies in the Ukrainian songs. “Plyve Kacha” is also a beautiful song, of course, but this is the one I meant to post:
              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HERnFfbcIxY

              You’ll recognize it as Carol of the Bells. The Ukrainian version is the original. October 15, 2015 at 4:51am Reply

        • Victoria: To be honest, my musical upbringing wasn’t terribly exciting, apart from the classical music I was exposed to because of ballet. What I realized over time is that I really love polyphonic singing, and in many Ukrainian songs, for instance, it’s a very common technique (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fh6jDxcqKMM). But yes, ghazals felt familiar. Since many ghazals are about the pain of loss or love and separation, they have a melancholy aspect that echoes many folk songs I heard as a child.

          When I first heard South Indian Classical music (also through the Indian movies), it also felt surprisingly familiar. Since tabla makes me melt, it was a perfect combination. 🙂

          In case others want to know what we re talking about, here is a link:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5a3pthL_tU October 13, 2015 at 5:16pm Reply

          • Michaela: Thank you very much for these links, which open new worlds. October 14, 2015 at 7:29am Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you to Lavanya for inspiration and for such a thought-provoking comment. October 14, 2015 at 3:39pm Reply

  • Lavanya: oops – I am not sure if it ok to post links – so feel free to delete but I wanted to share this with you. October 13, 2015 at 3:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s fine to post links (although my spam filter occasionally holds them back). October 13, 2015 at 3:11pm Reply

  • Joy: Thank you so much for sharing this today, Victoria. I found this on Netflix, although I don’t know which version it is. Film is one of my favorite art mediums.
    I also so enjoyed a film from the 90’s, I think, about the Armenian Gurdjieff. It is Meeting With Remarkable Men. There so many beautiful images and music from that film that have stuck in my mind. I also love films by the Roma Tony Gatlif. I believe he has only made four films. My most favorite is Vengo which is a view into the world of the Andalusian Flamenco. The music is enchanting. I hardly ever purchase films as I can get them so easily on Amazon or Netflix, but I did by this film. The Sufi wedding at the beginning is gorgeous. His films are an film explanation of the Roma culture which I find fascinating.
    Thank goodness for film and World musicians, who travel long distances to bring us this enchanting and stunning music, and who can now record it. Although, I fear in many cultures their lives and music have been tragically lost.
    My thanks to the other subscribers for their film suggestions. October 13, 2015 at 4:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t seen these films, so I already wrote them down in my little orange notebook. We don’t get Netflix here, so I usually purchase films I want to see. Otherwise, there is simply no way to discover some of these gems. October 13, 2015 at 5:27pm Reply

      • Hamamelis: Thank you V for the post and links. Meetings with remarkable men (by Peter Brook who also directed the Mahabharata) can be a real gateway. October 14, 2015 at 4:56am Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you! Definitely on my list now. October 14, 2015 at 3:37pm Reply

  • Solanace: Surrealist tendencies should always be fostered! October 13, 2015 at 5:13pm Reply

  • Annabel Farrell: We fortunate people born and brought up in the West should always remember how lucky we were and are – and try not to complain about too much! October 13, 2015 at 7:49pm Reply

    • Joy: Yes we are lucky! Other people do not have the access and resources that we do. October 13, 2015 at 10:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, nothing wrong with complaining. 🙂 After all, in the West our lives (and our societies) aren’t perfect, and there are many legitimate reasons for complaining. But I agree with Joy that we have many more opportunities and resources. It’s important to value them. October 14, 2015 at 10:01am Reply

  • AndreaR: It’s always a joy to travel with you, Victoria. October 13, 2015 at 9:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for coming along. 🙂 October 14, 2015 at 10:28am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: What a wonderful review! I hope I get the chance to see this movie. Thank you Victoria for writing about it. October 13, 2015 at 10:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure, Phyllis! Hope that you will like it. October 14, 2015 at 10:28am Reply

  • Aurora: Another wonderful post, Victoria. It must make this film all the more special to you that you can’t remember exactly when and how you saw it. It reminds me of having seen Ivan the Terrible when about 10 in a psychiatric hospital visiting my mother. To this day I recall some scenes of this wonderful film, especially the use of shadows on walls. Thanks to you, I now hope to see Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova. Yes, his plight had touched the heart of the French people. The actress has such haunting eyes. October 14, 2015 at 12:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can only imagine what a lasting memory it would leave, the setting and the film. My mom still remembers being frightened by scenes from Alexander Nevsky as a child.

      Sofiko Chiaureli has such a striking face. She played no less than 6 roles in this film. October 14, 2015 at 4:00pm Reply

  • Simone: The restored version was screened in Paris, and what to say, it left a strong impression on me. Thank you for writing about it and giving us your personal view of this chef d’oeuvre. October 15, 2015 at 5:32am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure!
      Wasn’t it a magical experience to watch this movie on a big screen? October 15, 2015 at 3:31pm Reply

  • Gentiana: A very special movie… I really would like to see it! October 20, 2015 at 11:35am Reply

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