From the Vault: Directing Sayat Nova

The beloved and recognized musician Sayat Nova has positioned himself as an integral part of our history.

The legendary performer was born Harutyun Sayatyan and lived from 1712-1795, but his contributions still inspire generations centuries later.

The life and career of the artist was adapted into two feature films in the 1960s. The first film, Sayat Nova (1960) was from Kim Arzumanyan, who came into cinema after decades in the world of theater and television. The second film, originally known as Sayat Nova (1968) and later retitled The Color of Pomegranates, was from Sergei Parajanov, who is considered a master filmmaker, despite having only produced a handful of films. Both films are concerned with transcribing the musician’s life into film, but their approach in doing so make these two very distinct pieces of work.

 The film that comes to mind when the general public thinks of Sayat Nova is likely to be the original, black and white film from Kim Arzumanyan. The film was popular with audiences, primarily because of its conventional narrative approach in telling a story of an influential figure in history. In its introduction, we meet the artist in his youth, when he was still known by his first name, as we discover how he meets his mentor and how his passion for singing is developed. The entirety of his life is covered in this narrative, from childhood and adolescence into adulthood until his adoption of the persona of “Sayat Nova,” which translates into “Master of Songs.”

The film was successful with audiences for numerous reasons, primarily because of its area of focus. In the second half of the film, Sayat Nova is placed in the service of Court as a Royal Musician and Poet by the King of Georgia. The focus then shifts from his music to the relationship he establishes with the King’s sister, Princess Anna. The relationship between the young artist and his love feels like a soap opera. The obstacles in their path and their doomed love recounts Romeo and Juliet, as the film further distances us away from the music and art of Sayat Nova himself. 

The filmmaker’s theatrical sensibilities are also emphasized in the construction of this film, particularly in its framing of the actors and their dramatic performances. The film resembles a play and many times the actor’s exaggerate their performances, as if performing for a large audience. This approach, however, works because of its exploration of melodrama. 

The Color of Pomegranates is less familiar with popular audiences because the film was censored and banned during its release. The Soviets disapproved of Sergei Parajanov’s use of religious ritual, nudity and sexuality, as well as the fact that he completely disregarded social realism, whose objectives were to portray social and racial injustice, economic hardship, as well as emphasize the increasing struggle of daily life. The original film, also known as Sayat Nova, which had a running time of 78 minutes, was re-edited by the filmmaker himself and retitled The Color of Pomegranates, now with a running time of 73 minutes. In August 2011, in a rare occasion, LACMA presented the original film in its original running time at a retrospective screening in Los Angeles.

 

Sergei Parajanov’s work is less of a biographical examination and more of a visual exploration. The film takes an experimental, non-narrative approach in telling its story of the life and career of the artist. The use of meticulous attention to detail in its art direction and costume design allows this film to resemble a visual poem rather than a narrative film. The film’s unconventional approach also extended into the casting decisions made by Sergei Parajanov. The role of Sayat Nova was portrayed by a female actress, Sofiko Chiaureli. In addition to her undertaking of the title role, she also portrayed five other characters.

 

Sergei Parajanov was, of course, later imprisoned, but his achievements with this particular film didn’t go unnoticed. Mikhail Vartanov, a fellow filmmaker, compared him to D.W. Griffith (the father of narrative film) and Sergei Eisenstein (the father of montage), and remarked that “world cinema has not discovered anything revolutionary new until The Color of Pomegranates.”

 

In both cases, we are presented with two films that contribute to the overall history of national cinema. Their only similarities lie in one specific scene, which is when Sayat Nova joins the monastery. In both films, the filmmakers rely on sparse dialogue (or no dialogue in Sergei Parajanov’s case) and visual storytelling.

 

Kim Arzumanyan’s film has become a revered classic for its depiction of true love in the midst of great artistic ability, whereas Sergei Parajanov’s film has been considered a cinematic masterpiece and a work of art, because of its visionary approach.

 

Sergei Parajanov’s film can be viewed in its entirety in the link from YouTube below.