Considered one of the most revolutionary and influential filmmakers of the 20th century, Sergei Parajanov's bold cinematic language has captivated audiences the whole world over.

With 1969's The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov crafted a beautifully poetic film celebrating the life of the 18th century Armenian troubadour, Sayat-Nova. A masterwork in aesthetics, The Color of Pomegranates pushed every cinematic boundary with its rich use of color and inventive editing style. At the time, there had never been a Soviet film like it. To this day, it is still widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.

Parajanov was a controversial figure to the Soviet regime for the "subversive" nature of both his work and his lifestyle. In 1973, he was imprisoned and sentenced to five years of hard labor in a Ukrainian prison. After serving four years, he was imprisoned again in 1982. His final project was The Confession, which was left incomplete when he died at the age of 66 in 1990.

One of Parajanov's most trusted confidants during his incarceration was his close friend and artistic collaborator, the Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Vartanov. Vartanov had previously been blacklisted for featuring Parajanov and the painter Minas in his 1969 film, The Color of Armenian Land, and it would be another 20 years before he directed 1989's Minas: A Requiem. Vartanov's final film, Parajanov: The Last Spring, was released in 1992 and includes footage from the only surviving negative of The Confession. Celebrated by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who proclaimed that the film "exemplifies the power of art over any limitations," Parajanov: The Last Spring has undergone an extensive restoration and will screen alongside The Color of Pomegranates at the Academy Museum on Friday, April 19.

"I felt it was my duty to see that this film be preserved," says Martiros M. Vartanov, the son of Mikhail Vartanov and founder of the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute. "It's very meaningful for me that we were able to premiere The Color of Pomegranates restoration I was involved with with the Academy. And now, we have the chance to premiere this new restoration of my father's film, Parajanov: The Last Spring, with the Academy as well. I'm moved, and I'm very grateful."

A.frame sat down with Vartanov to discuss the decade-long endeavor of restoring Parajanov: The Last Spring and reflect on the profound friendship between the elder Vartanov and Parajanov.

"Brothers-in-arts" Mikhail Vartanov (1937-2009) and Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990).

A.frame: How would you describe Parajanov's work and its importance to those who have yet to discover his films?

It's not easy. I will say that he's now widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers, but even 20 years ago, people would ask, "How do you spell his name?" He was a genius. He had this incredible ability and great love for folklore. You could drop him anywhere on Earth, and he would create the greatest film for that country. He did that for Ukraine and Armenia and then in Georgia, and he wanted to do that in America, too. He always said, "We need more love," and he projected this — being able to fall in love with any country's folklore and people. I think that's what people adore so much about him and his work now. And he's become more well-known around the world thanks to Martin Scorsese, Lady Gaga, and the work we do at the Institute.

The Color of Pomegranates has appeared on countless polls as one of the greatest films ever made. What is known about Parajanov's creative inspiration for the film?

He was an Armenian, but he didn't see Armenia until he was an adult, quite late in his life. Armenia is right next to Georgia, where he was born, and when he came [to Armenia], he was completely blown away by the land, the architecture and the people. I guess this spoke to him. He had already created his revolutionary film language, and when the opportunity came to work in Armenia, he was thrilled. The conditions were much more limited to what he had been used to in Russia and Ukraine, but he had the opportunity to film in Armenia, having just discovered the country for the first time, and he created this masterpiece.

Your father directed The Last Spring, which is a celebration of the close friendship that he had with Parajanov. Can you talk a little about their relationship and what made it so special?

The best way I've found to answer that is when Parajanov was in prison, my father wrote him a letter. In the letter, my dad wrote, "I know that you have come into this world to counterbalance mediocrity and swinishness, and when I think of you there in prison, I don't want to live." Parajanov was so moved by the letter that he sent it to his wife, and in his response said, "You are the only friend who compels me to live." And this came from him when he was in prison. Andrei Tarkovsky sent his child's drawings from Russia to Ukraine where Parajanov was in prison, and he took these drawings, annotated them, and sent them to me when I was born. He wrote, "Martiros, accept my blessings. I give you the drawings by the son of Tarkovsky," and along with that, he'd sent a flower from the prison yard. He'd dried it and made a collage with it. He was only allowed two letters a month and when you look at the number of letters we have from him during his imprisonment, you understand who was really important to him. He wrote to his wife Svetlana, my dad, and some other friends.

But in those moments of despair and really challenging times, this is the kind of beauty he was creating and sending it to the people who were most important to him. My father suffered greatly for his friendship and support of Parajanov. He was one of the only friends who didn't turn away from Parajanov when he was incarcerated. My father wrote a petition to the Prosecutor General of Ukraine requesting Parajanov's release, and a few months after that, my father was fired [by the studio] and forbidden to direct again.


This new restoration of The Last Spring took 10 years to complete. What exactly was involved in the restoration process?

The Last Spring was made in very difficult conditions. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a war. My family would wait for hours for bread, because of food shortages. We only had water and electricity for 60 minutes per day, and my dad edited most of the film by candlelight. His health was already collapsing, and he was worried that he would not be able to finish the most important work of his life. So, the conditions in which the film was made were unimaginable. There were a lot of problems inherent in the film which required not only rescanning and "clean up," but you also have to get the colors just right. The film is comprised of many different film stocks — sometimes my dad shot on a Soviet film stock, some parts of it are on Kodak — and the film was assembled using prints from Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and then Parajanov's unfinished final film, The Confession, is also edited into the film. There's a poetic way my dad edited this film which masters like [Francis Ford] Coppola, Scorsese and [Jim] Jarmusch admired so much, and I wanted to put my heart and soul into getting this restoration right. I drove everybody crazy, but I was trying to get this as perfect as possible. I'm so grateful to UCLA for sticking with me throughout — it was a lot of work!

As you mentioned, The Last Spring contains footage from The Confession. What were Parajanov's intentions with making that film before he passed away?

This was his most cherished project. It was about his childhood, and he wrote the script in the 1960s but was only allowed to start filming 20 years later when his health was already deteriorating. It's kind of like Tarkovsky's Mirror or [Federico] Fellini’s Amarcord but also very different — it's unmistakably Parajanov's film language. When he was a child, he had observed the disappearance of the 19th century world and how it was being replaced by the Soviet way of life, and he tried to preserve this loss, and how his way of life was changing, in his memories. This film is his response to that. When he was really ill in the 1960s, he said he was praying to God to let him live long enough to finish the script, and for 20 years, he tried to get it made. Finally, as the Soviet system began to collapse, he was able to start making it in the 1980s, but unfortunately, after two days of filming, he had to stop, because he was already unable to work [due to illness]. Parajanov wanted his film preserved in The Last Spring, and that's why my father worked so hard to complete the film. The parallels are amazing. The Confession was Parajanov's last film, and it ended up in The Last Spring, my father's final film.

As cinema continues to evolve in the 21st century, what do you personally think is Parajanov's enduring legacy?

At UCLA and other film schools, they teach you, "show, don't tell," and I think Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates is the peak of that. He shows you, he doesn't tell. And that's why people are so moved and hypnotized by his work. Sometimes they discover him through Lady Gaga or on Instagram, they get this little glimpse, and people are like, "What was that?!" And what it is — and maybe it's not very apparent at first — is he communicates emotions and feelings and stories and fundamental archetypal things. How he composes a shot, how he directs an actor, it's not just coincidence. My father always maintained that Parajanov's film language is not as complex as most people say. It is extremely simple. It's just that it's so simple that it appears to be complex. I think 100 years from now, these films will just get higher and higher in movie polls, because it's their simplicity that is truly genius and so ahead of their time. Their reputation will only get better and better.

By Adam J. Yeend


'It Became a Phenomenon': Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet Reflects on 23 Years of 'Amélie' (Exclusive)

Inside the Academy Museum's 'Casablanca' Exhibition (Exclusive)

Must-Read Books About Modern Cinema, Movies and the People Who Make Them