Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) dir. Sergei Parajanov
Starring: Ivan Mikolajchuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva, Spartak Bagashvili
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
Against the heart-achingly gorgeous rural tapestry of the Carpathian Mountains and training its kino-eye with both the grace and precision of a hawk on the colourful Hutsul peasantry of 19th century Ukraine, the swirling, dancing camera of cinematographer Yuri Illienko under the masterful direction of Serhey Paradjanov created what is, perhaps, one of the most astonishing and influential motion pictures of all time.
There are a lot of good pictures out there and a surprising number of great ones, but one can only count on the fingers of maybe four or five sets of hands the number of gems that truly deserve the sort of worship afforded to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Serhey Paradjanov’s immortal classic of Ukrainian cinema. I proclaim this with having seen over 30,000 movies in my life, so I do not issue this proclamation of truth lightly. I have also seen the picture itself at least 30 times, the first time at the age of seven on a bootleg film print smuggled into Canada and screened at the National Ukrainian Federation Hall in the North End of Winnipeg. Seeing this picture was never an easy feat, especially since it was repressed by the Russian communist dictators in the 1960s and then given relative short shrift through much of the home video revolution that began in the 1980s. (I still own a washed-out, over-priced VHS version that I bought at Kim’s Video in New York many moons ago.) Other than poor bootlegs I rented from video stores in North York and Etobicoke in Toronto, it was always annoying that the film was not available on DVD.
With this in mind, it is with reverence and joy that true cinephiles will regard the current Kino DVD release of Serhey Paradjanov’s. Not only is this the work that brought Paradjanov to the attention of serious cinema aficionados outside the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, but upon being unveiled in 1964, this wildly poetic and romantic motion picture not only influenced filmmakers all over the world, but also placed Paradjanov at the forefront of cinema artists – a place he so clearly deserved to be at.
Ethnically Armenian and born in Georgia, Paradjanov began his filmmaking career as an assistant director at the famed Dovzhenko Studios in Ukraine. Upon graduating to the full-fledged status of director, he toiled away in the often-clunky and sometimes restrictive realm of social realism that was demanded upon filmmakers and forced upon audiences by the communist powers-that-were. Though Dovzhenko himself disowned many of these pictures, it must be noted that he cut his teeth cinematically with some of the finest actors and technicians working within the Soviet system and he was not only able to learn and explore all aspects of cinematic storytelling, but frankly, he made quite a few decent pictures during this period. Films such as "Andriesh"," Ukrainian Rhapsody", "Dumka", "A Little Flower On A Stone" and numerous others all point to a developing visual storyteller with a flair for colour and poetry.
Unlike that work, however, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is not the proficient toil of a mere craftsman. It takes its place rightfully as the work of a true artist, a master, if you will. Based on the classic Ukrainian novel by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, it spins a seemingly straightforward tale of two lovers, Ivan and Marichka, who develop a magical, passionate bond in childhood, but who are kept apart tragically in life, only to be reunited spiritually in death.
This simple and oft-told tale is ultimately so complex, so emotional and so true – especially in Paradjanov’s hands – that it makes most love stories seem like just so much Harlequin pap. In the first place, there is the matter of Paradjanov’s now-legendary approach to the visual rendering – a camera that seems almost avian in its point of view. It swoops, it slides, it soars, it spins and as quickly as it begins its magical dance, it will stop, and stare with keen precision. It is a camera that never feels like it is where you expect it to be, yet in so doing, is exactly where one would want it to be. Paradjanov uses the camera eye to create emotion, to instill and render feeling. Yet even as he does this, he never sacrifices the clarity and/or forward thrust of narrative, the complexity of character or the underlying spirit of emotion inherent in the story. He never indulges his camera or his poetry strictly for the sake of poetry. He allows the poetic flourishes to serve the audience’s engagement in the world in which the characters live. Like Eisenstein at his best, Paradjanov still never forgets that as an artist, he is an entertainer, and a master entertainer at that. However, like Oleksander Dovzhenko, the pioneer of poetic cinema with "Arsenal" and "Earth" (Zemlya), Paradjanov also realizes that pure, strict narrative, pure social realism (if you will) is not the only way to effectively tell a story cinematically. Paradjanov composes images that are so heart-achingly beautiful that they stay burned in one’s memory long after the film has played itself out.
Paradjanov himself often acknowledged Andrei Tarkovsky as his chief inspiration. "Ivan’s Childhood" is the film that encouraged Paradjanov of the poetic possibilities of telling stories cinematically. Interestingly enough, "Ivan’s Childhood" was an odd first feature for someone like Tarkovsky in that it was almost a “gun-for-hire” job that forced him to find new and exciting ways of making the material “his own”. This, of course, is what still makes it (at least for me) Tarkovsky’s greatest achievement as the poetry serves the narrative and is never there just for the indulgent sake of it. And while "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is hardly a first feature for Paradjanov, it has the same fresh, exciting feel as "Ivan’s Childhood". (And again, since Paradjanov somewhat unfairly disowned his previous work, one could almost count it as a first feature.)
While Kino’s DVD is bereft of a commentary track, it does feature a vaguely interesting documentary entitled "Islands" which looks at the friendship and artistic similarities between Paradjanov and Tarkovsky. Filled with clips that compare and contrast the two filmmakers, it is definitely worth seeing, but only if you’ve watched all of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky’s key works. Although the DVD includes a Dolby 5.1 track, it wisely includes the original mono track. Time and expense were never spared in Soviet cinema and the mix on this film proves just how wonderful mono sound can actually be. The stunning music adapted by Miroslaw Skoryk from a wide variety of Ukrainian folk music in Hutsul dialect sounds magnificent in mono and seems better integrated with the other tracks than the overbearing and annoyingly pristine 5.1 track. The extras are nice, but for a film of this magnitude, it would have been welcome to have material that more deeply assessed the cultural and historical background. Greatness like this requires constant and diligent assessment.
And, in assessing the greatness of "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors", one should not discount the fact that the very material of Kotsyubinsky’s book was a perfect opportunity for Paradjanov to break out of the social realist mode of the communist oppressors and create a work of such profound cinematic artistry. During his lifetime, Kotsyubinsky, a social democrat dedicated to the ideals of writing narrative literature about Ukrainian culture in the Ukrainian language made him a target of the Czar’s secret police. Kotsyubinsky had been imprisoned and persecuted by Czarist Russia for most of his life. Ironically, during subsequent Soviet rule, writers like Kotsyubinsky were used as propaganda tools by the communists to extol the virtues of communism by extolling the virtues of artists and historical figures that had been persecuted by the Czar. Even though the communists practiced identical persecution on contemporary artists, they thought they could prove how superior they were by holding these people up as examples of political freedom fighters against the repression inherent in the previous regime. Since Kotsyubinsky’s centenary was just around the corner, it would not have been lost on Paradjanov that he’d have a relatively free ride within the Dovzhenko Studio to make exactly the movie he wanted to make out of Kotsyubinsky’s classic novel.
And what a ride he had. And what a ride, he gave us. (Though sadly, after the film was made, Paradjanov suffered mercilessly with endless persecution, brutal terms in the Gulag and a premature death due to illness brought on by his suffering.)
"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is a movie that raises the gooseflesh in the audience to new heights. Paradjanov never ceases to dazzle us with his virtuosity. When a falling tree comes crashing down on its intended victim, that camera is with the tree’s point of view as it watches the horror of said victim turn to pain and anguish as nature plunges down and crushes the man below. When an axe comes flying towards the face of someone, that axe practically smashes the camera lens in two and the screen – the eyes of the victim – turns to the colour of blood. As two lovers say farewell in the sun-dappled foliage of the Carpathians, their youthful faces become drenched with a sudden, magical rain-shower, which soothes their rising passion just as strongly as it hides their tears in raindrops. The movie is replete with images like these – not a shot, not a scene, not a frame goes by without some sort of cinematic invention. Sometimes contemporary audiences react with self-satisfied amusement to occasional flourishes in the film (as they are wont to do with almost everything that is not seemingly hip and now), but that’s only because the initial brilliance of Paradjanov to shoot something in a certain way has been so studied and copied that in its purest form, it seems like a cliché, when it is, in fact, the real thing.
"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" has been influential upon filmmakers outside of the Soviet Union (Dutch-Australian auteur Paul Cox cites it as the film that made him want to make films), but also, during the 60s and 70s, WITHIN the Soviet Union it briefly gave way to an explosion of poetic-styled cinematic storytelling – especially in Ukraine. Made in the Dovzhenko Studios (named after you-know-who, obviously), "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" inspired a brief, but exciting wave of poetic feature dramas including works by Illienko, Osyka and, interestingly enough, Ivan Mikholaichuk, the actor who stars as Ivan in "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors". (As a footnote, Mikholaichuk was not only one of the big stars of Soviet cinema, but one of the few who actually spoke Ukrainian. He was extremely influential at the studio and a big supporter of national cinema in Soviet countries where the Russian communists launched aggressive campaigns of Russification.)
Finally, one of the great things about this picture is how Paradjanov lavishes time and attention on all the rituals that rule the lives of the Hutsul people in the Carpathians. Church-going, Christmas, spring thaw festivals, harvest festivals, weddings, funerals, courting and many other richly evocative moments in the lives of the characters not only present a magnificent historical and cultural portrait, but do so, by integrating the rituals and the pleasure of watching the rituals directly into the narrative. Again, Paradjanov finds ways to tantalize our senses, but never in an indulgent way – always remembering to stay in service to the story.
One ritual detailed in the film that is especially poignant and funny is a wedding scene that involves a husband and wife being joined in the eyes of God (and the Hutsul community) blindfolded and attached to a yoke. In the world of these characters, life is work, while marriage is a life-long attachment to drudgery, and where the only escape, the only happiness, the only spiritual fulfillment comes in death and the afterlife.
These shadows of forgotten ancestors that infuse the lives, not only of the film’s characters, but in many ways, all of us are detailed with the beauty, care and grace that only a great artist like Paradjanov can bring to such material. He’s made a picture that allows us to participate in the rituals and heartaches of life while at the same time being tantalized and entertained by it.
He’s also made a picture that allows us to experience almost first-hand, a sense of spirituality where we can soar, bird-like, perhaps even God-like with the camera – Paradjanov’s camera – that magnificent vantage point that makes us feel immortal.
Now that’s poetry!