Loosely based on Anton Chekhov’s last play The Cherry Orchard, Ilgar Najaf’s film The Pomegranate Orchard tells the story of a family in rural Azerbaijan, who are forced to sell their orchard. Najaf was born in Armenia in 1975, but in 1988 he and his family fled the country due to ethnic conflict. He went on to study film at the Azerbaijan State University in 1993. Pomegranate Orchard is his second feature film after Buta (2011).
The film opens with an interior shot of a window with a pomegranate tree in full bloom just outside. The camera pans back to reveal the young boy Jalal taking an eye examination, as his mother Sara explains to the doctor that his vision has weakened ever since he accidentally fell off the roof. During the examination, Jalal is surprised to discover that he is color-blind: when shown the color red, he responds that it is black. Back home in the orchard, Jalal asks his grandfather Shamil what color pomegranates are, invoking Sergei Paradjanov’s film The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Although his grandfather expresses surprise that he doesn’t know pomegranates are red, we already sense that Jalal’s distorted vision accurately foresees the decline and death of the orchard. Indeed, we have just heard that their neighbor Rasim wants to buy the orchard to build a factory on the land. We know the plot of this story all too well from Chekhov’s play. Adding to the foreboding mood, Sara then tells Shamil, her father-in-law, about a nightmare she had the night before: the tree branches were hitting against the windows, causing pomegranates to splatter on the glass. “The juice was running down the glass like blood,” she says and then asks (rather improbably): “Do you think it’s a good sign?” If we had any doubt about the symbolism of the dream, the next shot makes clear the connection between the pomegranates and blood. The camera cuts to the wall at which Jalal has been throwing rotten pomegranates and slowly zooms in on the blood-red juice and pulp splattered on its surface. The visual effect is striking and again seems an oblique reference to Color of Pomegranates, which deploys a similar economy of images—one of the opening shots of Paradjanov’s film, for example, shows a cloth gradually soaking up the blood-red juice of the pomegranates that sit atop it.
The ruin that Sara’s dream predicts is set in motion when her husband, Gabil, unexpectedly returns home one rainy night after a twelve-year absence. He has been in Russia and claims to have done well for himself working in Moscow. And yet, despite the fact that he boasts about driving a Volvo and regularly pays for his friends at the tea house to demonstrate his largesse, several characters note that his clothes are in tatters. He tries to convince Sara and Jalal to move back with him to Moscow, but young Jalal is resistant. He is concerned about what will happen to the orchard, since his grandfather Shamil is getting old and won’t be able to harvest the pomegranates himself. The film plays on the theme of sight; although Jalal’s physical eye-sight is lacking, he is the one who seems to have true insight into his father’s motives.
Gabil eventually convinces his wife and son to move to Russia, promising that they will have more opportunities in Moscow. Recognizing that he will not be able to tend to the orchard himself, Shamil decides to sell the orchard to his neighbor Rasim, who plans to build a factory on the land. Shamil asks Gabil to take the money from the sale of the orchard and put it in a bank account for Jalal. Instead, Gabil absconds with the money to settle his debts, abandoning the family once again. While on the bus back to Moscow, he makes a phone call that reveals he has another family there. A friend later reveals, Gabil’s daughter there was being held hostage as collateral for his outstanding debts. The revelation of this detail feels somewhat gratuitous. Although it is meant to explain why Gabil has again betrayed his family, there was little sense of the severity of his situation prior to this moment. This slowly paced drama lacks the tension it would need to carry off such a revelation.
At the end of the film, we find ourselves back in the ophthalmologist’s office. The final shot is of the same pomegranate tree framed by the window at the beginning of the film, but now the fruit on the tree is blackened and shriveled. Although Jalal’s outward eye-sight has not improved, his vision of the black fruit has indeed come to pass.
The translation of Chekhov’s play to contemporary Azerbaijan yields some interesting results. If Chekhov’s play is concerned with changing socio-economic structures—the decline of the gentry and the rise of the middle class in post-reform Russia—so, too, does Najaf’s film attend to the rise of migrant workers coming to Russia from former Soviet republics and how this disrupts traditional ways of life.
Like Chekhov’s cherry orchard, the pomegranate orchard is portrayed as a fragile idyll, with signs of the modern world slowly encroaching. And yet, we are reminded that the idyllic nature of the orchard has already been pierced. In the play, Madame Ranevskaya’s son Grisha drowned in the river, thus impelling her to abandon the estate and move abroad. In the film, we learn that Gabil’s brother died when he crashed his car into one of the trees while driving drunk. It is Gabil’s guilt over this event—he had given his brother the keys to the car even though he knew he was drunk—that motivated him to flee to Russia twelve years ago. For both characters, the orchard is the beloved ancestral home but also the site of trauma.
What is intriguing, however, is that Gabil’s character doubles as both Ranevskaya, the aristocratic landowner of the orchard, and Lopakhin, the son of a former serf who buys the estate. Like Ranevskaya, Gabil returns to the family estate from abroad, heavily in debt. Despite their financial situations, both characters make a show of generosity so that others will still perceive them as prosperous. Like Lopakhin, though, Gabil also encourages the sale of the family estate in his attempt to gain ascendancy in the new socio-economic order. And yet, one feels that the film does not do as much as it could to explore this tension in Gabil’s character.