Like an emaciated escape from a political dungeon, Sergo Paradjanov's film "The color of Pomegranates" tells us all we need to know about oppression by its very existence.
Those who would control the thinking of others cannot censor merely the hostile thoughts; they must rub out any thought they cannot understand. And the censor, by definition, is the kind of person who insists each word can, must, have only one meaning. Such a person can understand little.
Russian censors clipped a half-hour out of this picture. Iranian censors, believing the shah was in some way being mocked, took out more scenes. Paradjanov, whose earlier picture, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," won high praise at festivals around the world, was sent to Siberia. His name was scrubbed from the records and histories. Only a few years ago were Western film people able to get him released to a form of house arrest. He is still not allowed to make movies. He does't want to leave his native Tbilisi, Georgia, but may be given a visa through colleagues' influence.
Last week the film was shown here -- the second time it was ever screened in this country -- by the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Its eight episodes reduced to about 90 minutes, it tells the story of Sayat Nova, an 18th century Georgian poet and martyr.
At first glance, it calls up all those senior-thesis words; hieratic, emblematic, iconic. There is no dialogue. There is very little motion. Mostly, it is a series of tableaux of grave, long, huge-eyed, olive faces staring straight out at us like figues in a Byzantine mosaic. The camera never stirs.
People appear abruptly in profile, make some solemn, slow gesture, then turn portentously to face us. Horses ride past. Priest form lines in heraldic patterns. For a long minute a boy sits among a whole roofful of ancient books, open to the wind, their pages riffling.
The symbolism is straightforward and literal. The opening shot shows three pomegranates on a white cloth. Their red life-juice spreads over the white. Cut to: a dagger, staining the white cloth with the death-juice of blood.
Like any great vision, this film cannot be judged by conventional criteria. "Pomegranates," made in the early '70s, has the hypnotic power of all single-minded, obsessive creations, like Christopher Smart's poetry, like Watts Tower, like Beckett's plays -- to none of which can it be compared, of course.
And this exotic flower, this lovely conundrum, this wordless passionate song; this they censor?