The bleeding heart of Sayat Nova : the intermediality of cinema portrayed through the Color of Pomegranates

12 minutes to read
Mikaela Raeva

The Color of Pomegranates, a 1969 movie by Armenian director, Sergei Parajanov, is an intriguing artefact that tries to recreate the inner world of the 18th century Armenian poet Sayat Nova.

Based on previous definitions of intermediality in cinema, in this paper I will analyze The Color of Pomegranates as a case study for intermediality and remediation of literature present in cinema by drawing on the history of the movie’s creation, the subject matter of the movie itself and the key role of the audience in creating the narrative. 

The medium of/within cinema

The intermediality of cinema as an amalgamation of all preexisting arts (music, literature, architecture) has long been debated in film theory circles. Since the goal of cinema is the presentation of narratives and the production of emotions through moving imageries, music and language (Pethő, 2020), some define cinema as the first truly intermedial medium (Heinrichs & Spielman, 2002) due to its ability to converge those preexisting mediums’ key characteristics and create something completely new. In her 2020 book, Cinema and Intermediality, Agnes Pethő embarks on the journey to define intermediality in cinema by analyzing structural components of movies, such as the tableaux vivants (the blend of painting and cinema in the sense of depicting still, highly emotionally charged imageries on screen) and the translation of verbal metaphors in cinematic form, which experimental filmmakers have used for years in order to create new forms of cinema and reimagine the way audiences interact with motion pictures.

As Pethő states, however, the medium cannot be removed from the socio-political context of its time and therefore the intermediality of the cinema depends heavily on the time period during which the movie was made and the audiences’ impression and beliefs at the time. This directly correlates to Dick Higgins’ definition of intermediality as a politically-driven art project, aiming to bend and go beyond the rules and limitations of “the medium’’ and create something new with heavy involvement from an audience (Higgins, 1965). 

Despite the complexities of placing cinema on the medium spectrum or in-between it, it remains an invention, the inherent message of which is the transition between configurations towards interpretations (Mcluhan, 1964). Cinema exists, at least “physically” in the sense of a motion picture. However, in its configuration and interaction with other mediums, in its convergence and remediation of them, it erases the boundaries of their visibility (the screen, the script, the actors) in order to create an emotionally and perceptually immersive experience for an audience.  The definition of remediation by Bolton and Grusin (2000) as “one medium [that] is itself incorporated or represent in another medium” , by which a new medium is subsequently created by repurposing the content of the old one,.holds the key to unlocking the “deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life” (Tarkovsky, 1984; Pethő, 2020). 

The inextricable links between cinema, other mediums and arts is evident since, from its inception in theatrical environments, it has continuously evolved in its ability to depict complex states, concepts and visuals. But what makes it truly intermedial rather than just a transmedial remediation of an already existing idea, is the involvement of audiences as evaluators of the piece through their senses, perceptions and experiences, and their ability to construct coherent and intricate narratives from stringed sequences, sometimes visibly unrelated, as is the case in The Color of Pomegranates.

Cinema is (sur)real

Sergei Parajanov was born in 1924 in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic by Armenian parents (Mamo, 2022). A student of the finest film school in the USSR, VGIK, Parajanov’s first works were oriented in the socialist-realist genre, which was State mandatory and required the depiction of the glory and victories of the Soviet Union in a way that was intelligible to the masses. After the release of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood, however, a revolution in the cinema of the region was about to take place. Inspired by Tarkovsky's surrealist and dreamlike sequences, Parajanov denounced his previous work and released the 1965 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Mamo, 2022). The film looked hallucinatory, almost psychedelic (Mamo, 2022), and it was in stark contrast with State-approved pictures, since it contained imagery that was labeled as near-indecipherable (Mamo, 2022) for the masses and it was not dubbed in Russian. Later on, amidst the events of the Prague spring (Sorfa,2022), Parajanov created what is considered to be his magnum opus, Sayat Nova, which was later renamed by censors to Nran Guyne (The Color of Pomegranates). The movie was banned upon its release and Parajanov was sentenced to four years in prison, stripped from his directorial status, and unable to create  movies for 15 years after that due to the movie’s intensely political background, a taboo topic in socialist-realist cinema at the time. 

“King of songs"

The movie’s original title is a direct link to the main charachter whose life is depicted in the movie: the 18th century Armenian troubadour and monk, Sayat Nova, considered a martyr in Armenian folklore because of his refusal to abandon Christianity and convert to Islam, for which he was beheaded by Persian invaders. The movie portrays the poet’s inner world and is split into different narrative components, each section representing a different stage in Sayat Nova’s life - Childhood, Youth, Prince's Court, The Monastery, The Dream, Old Age, The Angel of Death and Death (Hajimirsadeghi, 2020). This, however, is the closest the picture will get to cinema and in the words of Christian Mamo it is “a film in only the loosest sense of the word” (Mamo, 2022). 

Sayat Nova was not only a remarkable figure for Armenian national identity, but was significant for Parajanov as well because of his desire to reconnect with his Transcaucasian roots and his artistry. The Poet is not a standalone figure, the movie is stripped of its historical context and it depicts a perfectly harmonious society, a free kingdom with set roles, which are continuous, repetitive and crafted entirely within the imagination of the Creator (Sorfa, 2022). The Creator, however, remains unknown. To a point. The focus of the movie is not Sayat Nova the person, but rather his poems. Despite the presence of chronologically aligned life sequences, the historical background for them is non-existent and sometimes not even shown. Sayat Nova’s world is sung through his art. As David Sorfa states in his article Review: The Color of Pomegranates, “This long, ritualistic journey is a poetic inheritance from Sayat Nova. But the more spiritual energy belongs to Parajanov; As Parajanov himself says: ‘I don’t try to tell the life of a poet, but to recreate the inner world of a poet” (Sorfa, 2022). 

Tableaux vivants

The movie relies heavily on the intermedial concept of the tableaux vivant. As a matter of fact, the entire composition is a string sequence of tableaux vivants. There is no narration, with the exception of religious songs and some of Sayat Nova’s poems, but the viewer never knows who is singing. There is no dialogue, actors move slowly, in calculated and repeated movements but ethereally and gracefully as if their choreography is simultaneously carefully planned and arbitrary. There are long shots of intense eye contact with the camera as if they are communicating directly with the audience but remaining distanced, untouchable. As Brigitte Peucker (2007) states about the tableaux vivants in cinema “the bodily sensation is accentuated, animating the otherwise more abstract image and eliciting a direct, corporeal and emotional response from the viewer” (in Pethő, 2020). 

This deliriously beautiful film is made up of autonomous, resonant images that – like lines of poetry –stay in the mind long after the film has run its course

Parajanov masterfully uses this technique to serve his purpose and represent the story entirely through the mind and art of Sayat Nova. As Rahul Hamid points out this “deliriously beautiful film is made up of autonomous, resonant images that – like lines of poetry –stay in the mind long after the film has run its course” (Hamid, 2009). The Color of Pomegranates leaves the viewer confused, mesmerized and entranced, stunned by the grandiosity of the visuals and perplexed by the unintelligibility of the narrative. But the narrative is not as meaningless as it may seem.

The movie illustrates the poems of Sayat Nova rather than his biography. The unmoving camera acts as a window between the viewer and the magical world, riddled with intertextual references to the poems and Armenian culture overall. It is in this representation and its subsequent deciphering that I consider The Color of Pomegranates to be a grand intermedial project by remediating Sayat Nova’s poetry and letting the audience be the entity that constructs the narrative. 

The poetry within the poems

The Color of Pomegranates establishes its intersection between literature and cinema by remediating the poems on the big screen. The story is not an adaptation of Sayat Nova’s work since there is not a direct transfer of the poems in the movie - they are not included, red or narrated but neither are they shown. The scenes depict the life of the Poet by using metaphors and imagery he oftentimes described in his art but that is implicitly depicted rather than explained throughout the movie. Literature is therefore remediated by visualizing literary devices and narrative structures through cinematic techniques and combining the two to create a movie that acts more as a live performance piece than a movie. 

Constructing the narrative

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi writes in her review of the film: “This is not a movie you watch once for the plot. You watch for the beauty and then return to it for the plot” (Hajimirsadeghi, 2020). When I first watched the movie, I was left perplexed. I could not understand the concept and at times I was wondering if there was any meaning behind the imagery. Parajanov’s surrealist dream is completely unintelligible for viewers who have no understanding of Armenian culture, history and Sayat Nova’s poems. The Color of Pomegranates is Parajanov’s love letter to his culture, because without knowing the references behind the images, one is incapable of understanding the characters’ roles, their meaning, the meaning of the decor, the clothing and props, the color symbolism or the overall sequence of events taking place. 

The opening and closing sequences of the movie mirror each other and enclose the cyclical composition by showing three pomegranates (symbol of fertility in Armenian folklore), first bleeding in the form of the Armenian territories, followed by a shot of a bleeding dagger (symbolizing the eternal suffering of Armenian people), and finally, shown after the death of the Poet, illustrating the pomegranates’ wholeness being destroyed. The portrayal of Sayat Nova’s death is incredibly intertextual in itself since the historical death of the Poet is not shown, in order to illustrate the peaceful acceptance of suffering and a form of romanticization of the future - Parajanov’s way of saying to his Armenian audience that better days will come. In reality, Sayat Nova was decapitated; in the movie, however, his death is not shown in that way

Unlike in real life, in the film there is no display of violence. The viewer may not even realize a death is being depicted. This highlights the audience’s important function in narrative construction. Without the historical awareness and knowledge of Sayat Nova’s poetry, the movie is just a recollection of arbitrary pictures, a live-performance, an avant-garde piece for the finest movie connoisseurs. But in reality it represents a simple narrative of beauty and suffering; a narration of a nation’s entire existence, of their strength, significance and cultural relevance. Parajanov communicates that by connecting to his Armenian audience through complex intertextual references, hidden in the traditional clothing, the numerous shots of flatbread, the language, the locations of filming, which are all significant historical sites.

This isn’t a film you watch for entertainment or plot. You want to watch these kinds of films because they’re art, they’re culture, and they’ll steal all the breath you have left from your mouth

The understanding of the intricate tale behind the narrative is impossible without the immersiveness of the audience - it is them, their knowledge, experience and understanding that makes the connection between the medium, the technological and the artist’s abstract vision. What I believe best encapsulates this relationship between audience and message can be found in the words of Robert Efird (2018): "The work of art is then an event of perpetual unfolding or becoming, beyond the dualistic subjective and objective poles that often rigidly govern the medium, and which the filmmaker either ignores or deliberately subverts"

The art of experiencing 

The Color of Pomegranates  is its own genre. Despite the research done in preparation for this paper, the movie still remains somewhat of an enigma. Its deep embeddedness in its culture and time, in its inspiration and in its boldness, both of it overstepping the medium boundaries of cinematic form and the political ones in real-life, has led to the reaction of a one-of-a-kind audio-visual experience, that on top of satisfying the viewer’s senses will make them appreciate a culture, which perhaps was previously unbeknownst to them, and the artistry of a brilliant visionary. As Ashley Hajimirsadeghi (2020) put it best : “This isn’t a film you watch for entertainment or plot. You want to watch these kinds of films because they’re art, they’re culture, and they’ll steal all the breath you have left from your mouth”.


Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (2000). Remediation: Understanding New media. MIT Press.

Efird, R. (2018). Sergei Parajanov’s Differential Cinema. Film-Philosophy, 2(3), pp. 465-483

Hajimirsadeghi, A. (2022). Review and Summary of The Color of Pomegranates (1969)Ashley Hajimirsadeghi.

Hamid, R. (2008, August 1). The Colour of Pomegranates. Sensesofcinema.

Higgins, D., & Higgins, H. (2001). Intermedia. Leonardo 34(1), 49-54. 

Mamo, C. (2022, January 1). The Colour of Pomegranates: One of the most unique films ever made. Emerging Europe

McLuhan, M. (1964). Medium is the message. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York : McGraw-Hill.

Old Films Revival Project. (2023, January 22). The Color of Pomegranates - Sergei Parajanov | 1969 [Video]. YouTube. 

Pethő, Á. (2020). Cinema and Intermediality (Second, Enlarged Edition): The Passion for the In-Between. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Sorfa, B. D. (2022, September 2). Review: The Color of Pomegranates (1969). The Film Dispatch.

Tarkovskiĭ, A. A. (1986). Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Random House (UK).