Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Film: Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I try very hard to maintain an open mind when I watch films with which I am unfamiliar. This is particularly true if the film comes from another culture, and even moreso when it comes from a culture with which I have little experience and knowledge. But try as I might, there are times when I seriously get the impression that the filmmaker and critics are having a laugh at my expense. Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) is such a film. It is highly acclaimed by film critics and considered the masterpiece of Sergei Parajanov, and it is without a doubt one of the most incomprehensible 90 minutes I have spent in my lifetime.

I mean this in all seriousness. I am unable to say whether or not this is a great film or some sort of gigantic prank played by the film snob community, because I have not a single clue as to what much of anything in this film means. Quite a bit of it reminds me of some of the classic old Monty Python skits like Confuse-a-Cat, or Pasolini’s The Third Test Match, or perhaps the Find the Fish film from the middle of The Meaning of Life.

Evidently, this film is a sort of depiction of the life of the Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Rather than taking a literal interpretation of depicting his life, however, filmmaker Sergei Parajanov elects to attempt to recreate Nova’s inner life through images and selected pieces of the man’s poetry. All I can say is that if this is truly what the man’s inner life looked like, he was either constantly drugged, or one crazy mo-fo.

Sayat Nova doesn’t even try to be comprehensible. We see, for instance, a foot crushing some grapes. Then we see a fish between two pieces of driftwood. Then the fish turns into three fish, one flopping around. People stand as in tableaux, staring at the camera. A man lying on his back turns his head and faces the camera. Then the same thing happens again. A man stands in the middle of a church digging a hole with a shovel. He is suddenly surrounded by sheep. There are weird jump cuts and weirder dancing. Women come out in a line and flop tapestries on the ground. Then, a nun is hoisted up and down in the air on a rope while more tapestries are held behind her. A cherub in a picture frame rotates around while the picture frame swings back and forth.

I’ve said this about surrealist film in the past, and it’s just as true of art film—I have no idea how to take this seriously. It’s so completely out of nowhere, that my immediate reaction to it is to treat it very much like an extended Python skit and start laughing it just how ridiculous it really is. Undoubtedly someone finds this all very meaningful and powerful, but I can’t bring myself to think anything but how incredibly random it all is. How do I take this seriously?

I think the only way I might be able to get something out of this is with a massive amount of illicit chemicals, which is simply not in my nature. I didn’t even have a drink while watching this, although there were many times throughout when I thought about it. I don’t think alcohol would have helped me make sense of the film, but it at least would have made the pain of it, the utter nonsense of it, and the boredom caused by being constantly confused caused by it a little more palatable.

I can be happy that this is in the rearview mirror, but I’ll never get this time back, and I hold Sayat Nova personally responsible for my missing 88 minutes of my regularly scheduled life.

*** EDIT ***

So I've slept on it, and come to a realization. I have a hypothesis of how a film like this comes to be seen as a masterpiece of the style when it's really a weirdness souffle with psycho-cream on top. My thinking is that someone--a critic, a college film professor--tripping balls and out of his mind saw this and declared it the greatest thing he'd ever seen. Then strictly for fear of being seen as stupid everyone else followed suit rather than admit that this film makes less sense than a suit coat made of tortilla chips. So to hell with it; I'm saying it: this film makes no sense, and it's not worth the time to watch.

Why to watch Sayat Nova: It's incomprehensibly striking.
Why not to watch: It's strikingly incomprehensible.


  1. I agree with you that this one is a tough call. It really took me awhile to understand it even a little bit. I'm willing to give it a thumbs up for the striking images, but I'm not sold on it enough to say I disagree with you too much. The other 1001 choice from Parajanov, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors I liked a little better but I'll be damned if I can remember why. I do think the thing I like most about going through the films on this list is seeing different types and styles of film I would have never ventured to otherwise.

    Chris, a librarian

  2. I've liked pursuing the list for exactly the same reason. For me, the pain of a film like this one is greatly mitigated by the fact that I've seen and really enjoyed dozens of films I'd have never bothered with otherwise, and the films I've liked have far outweighed the films I haven't.

  3. This sounds ... incomprehensibly striking.

    Nice article.

  4. It's possible that this film actually means something, but I don't know what it is.

  5. You'd do well to research the life of Sayat-Nova as well as the director, Padjaranov. The film is not intended to be a comprehensible narrative so much as a sequence of dreams, images, and mythology that carries the semblance of a narrative. The images and symbology are distinctly Armenian so it helps to know something of the history of the Armenian people as well. Admitting ignorance of something and then continuing to criticize it based on that ignorance seems a pointless endeavor to me. Perhaps the time you wasted writing this would have been better served via a quick perusal of the internet which has a wealth of knowledge available on all of the subjects I've just mentioned. If Art for you needs to be comprehensible and linear and literal, perhaps you should stick to more "palatable" films like those of Steven Spielberg. Art is not about literal black-and-white linguistic meaning. There is no decoder ring for a great work of Art. Its greatness lies in its ambiguity and interpretation.

  6. I had a response here that I just deleted. I have nothing to prove here. I'll limit myself to two comments:

    1) The fact that you've commented anonymously invalidates any worthwhile criticism.

    2) You'd also be taken more seriously if you'd gotten the director's name right. It's "Parajanov," not "Padjaranov."

  7. There's a couple of reasons why I'm dubious about the idea that there's any significant number of people who pretend they like highly acclaimed movies just because they want to impress people (or for whatever reason). I guess it happens if somebody wants to impress the teacher or if somebody has a crush on a film buff, so they have to pretend that, say, The Tin Drum is their favorite movie. But I've seen zero evidence that it happens with committed film buffs, and I think that particular category is the only one that's important here.

    Do you remember back when IMDB had message boards? Almost every well known, highly acclaimed film made before 1975 had a thread where some guy would be saying that something like Casablanca or Citizen Kane or King Kong was actually pretty dull, and people were only saying they liked it to look smart.

    You roll your eyes, and you think, Sheesh! It's OK that you didn't like it, pal, but it looks like you didn't actually research the film or read anything written by the film's fans. It looks like you're just mad that Casablanca has a higher score than some Christopher Nolan movie that you like.

    These people look rather sad and foolish to those of us who have seen Casablanca and Citizen Kane and King Kong numerous times and we love them and aren't bothered that they are in black and white with allegedly outdated effects and don't star Tom Cruise.

    To me, The Color of Pomegranates is no King Kong or Casablanca, but I got kind of a kick out of watching it for three days in five- to ten-minute segments. Visually very interesting. To someone who knows the work of Soyat Nova (which I don't), it might be a different experience altogether, uplifting and entertaining and inspiring. I'm not going to assume that people are saying they like it just because some critics gave it a thumb's up. (Truth to tell, at this point, I have not come across anyone who's seen it outside of this blog, let alone anyone who liked it more than I did.)

  8. The other thing that makes me dubious of the idea that people pretend to like movies to impress other film buffs is that I don't know any film buffs that are shy about expressing their opinions about classic films they don't like. The comments to the entries on this blog provide a lot of examples. I'm highly critical of Vertigo, a film whose great reputation mystifies me, though I've seen it five or six times (it's not boring) trying to figure it out. Instead of assuming that people are pretending to like it, I assume that for most people, the film's style overshadows the film's glaring (to me) logical lapses.

    My friend Giallo Danny (who's seen every Italian genre film from 1960 to 1985) sometimes seems to have seen just about everything. Every time I see a film from the List, I text him to see if he's seen it. (And so much of the time, he has. When I texted him about Toni Erdmann, he reminded me that he had told me about seeing it when it first came out, but I had just forgotten. I like it when I stump him with something he's never heard of, like Four Lions. He had never heard of Daisies either! That surprised me.)

    But he has no problem with putting down Ingmar Bergman. He thinks Fanny and Alexander is boring and has never seen the whole thing. He thinks The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries are both OK films that are just highly overrated. (The one he loves is The Magician. Which is actually a good choice if you're only going to like one Bergman film.)

    My other film buff friends are the same way, but Giallo Danny is merely my best example because I talk to him so much.

    So that's why I'm dubious that there are any significant number of committed film buffs pretending to like difficult movies just to impress people. I know I've never done it. There was an IMDB thread like this for Jeanne Dielmann, and I love Jeanne Dielmann! I find it fascinating and I'm hoping it shows up on cable soon because I want to see it again. The thing is ... I don't know very many people who like it. If I'm saying I like it to impress people, then I'm a fool because nobody is impressed!

    Just my two cents.

    1. I get what you're saying, but the thing is this--there are only a specific set of considered-great films that a cinemaphile can get away with not liking. When the film is this incomprehensible but is talked about as being deep and meaningful, saying that it's shit is (or can be) tantamount to saying that you're too thick to understand it.

  9. As for the film itself ... well, its no King Kong or Casablanca or even Jeanne Dielmann. It made me think of a Bunuel film where the filmmaker wasn't specifically attacking religion, it just looked that way after a while.

    I actually got a kick out of watching it in short segments and wondering what Sayat Nova's poems are like. I don't know much about Armenian culture but I used to live in Hollywood (parts of which is home to many Armenians) and I had a very good friend in college who is Armenian. So in my neighborhood I would sometimes see fliers and handbills about Armenian cultural events and every spring lots of stuff commemorating the Armenian genocide by the Turks during World War I. And my Armenian friend would sometimes tell me about going to Armenian cultural events (I guess they have an opera tradition) with her mother. She also went to Armenia while I knew her and she came back with lovely photos and memories of Yerevan and also the beautiful churches and monasteries built halfway into the mountains.

    So The Color of Pomegranates was not a complete culture shock to me.

    I liked that bit where they were filling the church with sheep. Sheep sheep sheep! With the camera pulling back to show us ALL THE SHEEP!

    I thought that part was leading up to something!

    But then the film goes off on a(nother) tangent and the people are making blankets.

    But my faith in the film was soon restored when they tied up these two plot threads with a scene where the people were showing the blankets to the sheep in the crowded church!

    (Unfortunately, we still didn't get any closure because they didn't show us whether the sheep bought the blankets or rejected them! So frustrating!)

    So I had fun with Soyat Nova and I liked it well enough. I even recommended it to my Armenian friend. I am DYING to hear back from her about what she thinks of it.

    1. I'll just say that I wasn't a fan and leave it there. Of course if we agreed on everything, one of us would be unnecessary.

  10. Just a word of support, Steve. I am on your side here. There is definitely a peer pressure among critics and high-brow commenters to follow suit and love what has been acclaimed as a artistic master piece. I remember watching a Kiarostami movie that fell into that category big time.
    On The Colors of Pomegranates I am with you most of the way but its saving grace is that the pictures are so beautiful and that all pretense of a narrative has been thrown out the window so we don't even have to wonder at what is going on. Looking for meaning is futile so why bother.

    1. I get what you're saying. In that case, though, I'd rather spend two hours in an art museum.