This review of Sergei Parajanov’s 1964 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Peruse the full roster of contributions here.
The dedication to Orest Subtelny’s Ukraine: A History reads: To those who had to leave their homeland, but never forgot it. In much the same way that Jews around the world are encouraged to strongly identify with the nation of Israel and “never forget” the tragedy of the Holocaust, there is something of that same kind of long, long memory that nests itself deep inside the Ukrainian soul—or, at least, that is how we are told it should be. The title of Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s book—Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors—suggests as much, conjuring up poetic images in the mind of long-ago-departed family members reappearing, like ghosts, to inform the lives of their descendants.
Adapting the book for the screen a century after the author’s birth, “mad genius of Soviet cinema” Sergei Parajanov furthered that idea. The irony is that the story of the film is, in fact, not so much about things forgotten as about the calamity that may befall a man when memories stick inside the heart like a dagger, when things become impossible to forget.
In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the “shadows” are those that are cast by death, and we are shown the strong hold that death will have on Ivan Paliychuk at the very outset of the film, when, as a child living in a 19th-century village in the Carpathian Mountains, he is saved by his older brother from the crush of a falling tree only to have his sibling sacrifice his own life. Young Ivan struggles to free himself from the grip of his dead brother’s hand—and in these opening moments, we’ve been given a powerful symbol of the burden that will become the defining characteristic of his life.
The funeral for Ivan’s brother quickly brings about another tragedy, when Ivan’s grieving father gets into a fight with a man originating over class resentments. Despite the wailing protestations of both men’s wives, the men take up axes against each other and Ivan’s father is killed. We’re some eight minutes into the film and we’re already on our second funeral scene, which finds Ivan’s devastated mother cursing the family of the man who killed her husband, while Ivan, in true Shakespearean style, strikes up a friendship with little Marichka—the daughter of his father’s killer.
Ivan frolics with Marichka in sunny fields, seeks to protect her when they hear strange noises in the night, and innocently bathes nude with her in a stream; we first sense their relationship is blossoming into romance as the adult Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk) and Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova) make eyes at each other during a church service—which adds another “forbidden” quality to this ardor between lovers whose families are bitter enemies. They pledge themselves to each other just as Ivan is preparing to leave home to labor with sheepherders until winter, in a dizzying farewell ecstasy where the sun streaks through the forest trees even as a cleansing rain—or is it the drench of God’s tears?—falls from the sky.
I’ll be looking at the star over the meadow. You look at it, too.
We already have a sense that Ivan and Marichka’s love is doomed when, in the dark of a cold and windswept cabin, he listens to his employer (translating the gestures of a mute coworker) tell the mythical tale of a divine marriage never to be consummated but only memorialized in wind and song. It is not long after this foreboding tale that the midnight star that was supposed to unite them seems instead to become a harbinger of doom.
This pivotal moment in the story—the death of Marichka—is not so much an element of the film you needed to be protected from in the form of a “spoiler” warning. Nor will it wreck your experience of the film in the least to know that, after a long and grievous period of mourning, Ivan marries Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), a woman who turns to the practices of sorcery when they prove unable to conceive a child—only to attract the lustful attentions of Yurochko, the man who will finally push the long-haunted Ivan into his final fits of madness. Parajanov’s visionary achievements with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are far more about mood and style and our ethnographic fascination with the Ukrainian Hutsul culture.
Parajanov’s direction, though featuring much of what we associate with typical Soviet imagery—including crisply detailed close-ups of fascinating human faces weathered both by the elements and elemental passions—is also frenetic with invention. Modern viewers will largely experience this 1964 work as a modern movie; the film is ablaze with the adventurous camerawork, cutting, and other visual and narrative devices that we think of as winding their way through 1960s film culture, typified by more notably-worshiped works like Godard’s Breathless (released five years earlier), Easy Rider (released four years later), and others.
Cinematographers Yuri Ilyenko and Viktor Bestayev liberate their cameras from the grip of a locked-down tripod to roughly trudge handheld alongside mourners; we are flown through a festival parade with a long, blurred whip pan that both disorients and symbolizes the rush of human memory; we swirl around Ivan and Marichka as they embrace in circular tracking shots reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo; blood streams across the camera lens and frames bleed to red at the end of individual “chapters” in the story; we flip to black-and-white for an extended time before returning to full color.
Celebrated around the world at the time of its release, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors also got Sergei Parajanov in trouble inside the Soviet Union—not, as you might expect, because of its narrative content, but because of his refusal to re-dub the film’s dialogue from the Ukrainian dialect to the “pure” Russian language. An array of charges were lined up against him in 1973 (five years after the release of his even more unconventional film The Color of Pomegranates); he was branded a homosexual (which may no longer be “criminal” in Russia but is still the cause of human rights violations today), convicted as a “trafficker” of art objects, and sentenced to five years’ hard labor. He served four.
A wonderful interview with Parajanov appears in writer Judy Stone’s book Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, where the director discusses being accused of Ukrainian nationalism. It would be gratifying to think that this conflict could now be considered another “shadow” of ancestors long past, but we can find this impulse to usher Ukraine back into the bosom of Russian control reflected not only in the era in which the film is set—when Imperial leaders sought to bring the “Little Russians” to heel and, as illustrated by Subtelny’s history book, “(recover) what was torn away” like Catherine the Great—we can also see it today in Vladimir Putin’s bellicose adventure in Crimea.
Parajanov’s deeply felt film, in which we are made to feel the burden of a single man’s heart as he wanders into the night to feed his animals, the packed snow crunching beneath his feet, also has something in common with another cinematic classic of romantic melancholy; by the end, we understand that life is about so much more than the problems of these particular little people in this crazy world. Life is about our memory of them—how we carry it alongside us, how we use it to drive ourselves on, or how we allow it to kill us. I’m part Ukrainian (on my mother’s side) and freely admit to regarding that particular element of my heritage more as a curiosity than anything terribly relevant in my life, but in viewing Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, I nevertheless found myself very much identifying with its passions and its warnings.
The flame of memory can destroy. With the help of the shadow-play of great movies, it can also light our way forward and back to life.