Tag Archives: Soviet

350. SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS (1964)

Tini zabutykh predkiv, AKA Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors; Shadows of Our Ancestors; Wild Horses of Fire

“To say that Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors violates every narrative code and representational system known to the cinema is an understatement—at times, in fact, the film seems intent upon deconstructing the very process of representation itself. The relationship between narrative logic and cinematic space— between point of view inside and outside the frame—is so consistently undermined that most critics on first viewing literally cannot describe what they’ve seen. Adjectives frequently used to characterize Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are ‘hallucinatory,’ ‘intoxicating,’ and ‘delirious’—terms that imply, however positively, confusion and incoherence.”–David Cook, filmreference.com

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ivan Mykolaichuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva

PLOT: Ivan, a Hutsul villager in a remote town in the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains at an undetermined time in the past, falls in love with village girl Marichka. After Marichka tragically dies he’s inconsolable for a time until he finds and marries Palagna. He and Palagna cannot conceive a child, however, and when she seeks the help of a sorcerer to become fertile, she ends up seduced by the wicked magician.

Still from Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is adapted from an (out-of-print in translation) short novel of the same title by writer Mikhail Kotsyubinsky (to whom the film is also dedicated, on the centennial of his birth).
  • Director Serjei Parajanov considered Ancestors the real start of his filmmaking career, calling the five features he directed before this one “garbage.”
  • Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors launched Parajanov’s rocky relationship with Soviet authorities, which would eventually lead to his blacklisting and even to jail time in 1974 after the release of The Color of Pomegranates. This movie contained three elements sure to raise the ire of the Communists: Christian imagery, the suggestion of a Ukrainian ethnic identity separate from the Soviet Union, and flights of fantasy that defied the official aesthetic of socialist realism.
  • The actors in Ancestors speak in an authentic Hutsul dialect of Ukrainian and Parajanov refused to allow it to be dubbed or translated into Russian, further angering Soviet authorities.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seven minutes into Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a man is struck with an axe. Blood runs across the camera lens, and we cut to an insert of rusty red horses leaping through a white sky. At this point, you either turn the film off in frustration, or fall totally in love with it and ride it to the end.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The red horses of death; blindfold yoke wedding; Christmas reaper

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors Sergei Parajanov creates a specific yet idealized universe that feels like a fairy tale. Real Ukrainian folk rituals are painstakingly recreated, but with a postmodern spin that makes them seem new and strange. Red horses leap through the sky, a parade of Christmas characters includes the Grim Reaper, and it all plays out under a star of eternal love twinkling in an icy sky. Soviet authorities saw these nostalgic fantasies as dangerously counter-revolutionary, but they are as much a manifesto for a superior counter-reality.


Trailer for the narrated Russian-language version of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

COMMENTS: Sergei Parajanov saw Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors as the beginning of his career; it was also almost the end of it. Ancestors displeased his Soviet overseers so much that it is miraculous that he was allowed to make another movie before the dawn of Continue reading 350. SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS (1964)

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE MIRROR (1975)

is a staple at 366 Weird movies, so it’s only apt that we get around to what many believe to be his most personal film: The Mirror (1975). The title alone indicates as much. According to Tarkovsky’s memoir “Sculpting in Time” (an essential read), The Mirror began as a novella, reflecting on the artist’s years during the Second World War. He started the first of many script drafts a decade before filming commences, and with its pointed criticism of the Soviet Union, it’s remarkable that it was even produced, let alone distributed. Tarkovsky predictably found himself embroiled in intensive conflict with the Goskino film committee in pre-production, in production itself, and in post-production. The Mirror was given limited release in Moscow; Tarkovsky’s inevitable exile was a mere few years away. Post-production was reportedly a laborious process, going through approximately twenty extensive edits. Upon its release, both critical and audience assessments were sharply divided, with many finding it incomprehensible. Provoking much heated debate, The Mirror didn’t initially have the impact of Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), or Stalker (1979). Yet, it has since become one of  the most referenced Tarkovsky works among cineastes, and made Sight and Sound’s list of the top fifty films of all time.

Originally titled both ‘Confession” and  “A White, White Day,”  that changed when Tarkovsky brought his (divorced) parents and wife into the project. Arseny Tarkovsky (the father) reads from his own established poetry. Maria Vishnyakova (Tarkovsky’s tenderhearted mother) lends her visual presence to the film.

Although The Mirror vaguely covers bullet points from Tarkovsky’s childhood (the evacuation, Arseny’s abandonment of family, Maria’s influence on her son), it is a motion biography that metaphorically weaves through pasts that are past only compared to the more recent. Heightening the dissonance, actors are perpetually in motion, shifting roles: i.e. Margarita Terekhova plays both Tarkovsky’s mother and his wife Natalya. Her vanity is not blanketed, but it is as a maternal influence, educating her son in the arts and sheltering him from the threat of military service, that her portrayal becomes resplendently Orphic. The terminally ill narrator Alex (Innokenty Smoktunovsky)—never seen—is the film’s protagonist.

Tarkovsky’s childhood is represented as a bucolic pastoral disrupted by his father’s abandonment, symbolized in a building aflame. Tellingly, and with aching honesty, it is this betrayal, more than the war, that shatters and decimates Tarkovsky’s childhood. Abandonment by a loved one is the proverbial expulsion from a spiritual paradise. Yet, an undeniable supplemental element, born from the loss of innocence, is the latent political rage directed at a monstrously inhuman war.

Still from The Mirror (1975)The film imprints startlingly incandescent, fervent images that remain long after: Natalya washing her hair in a basin as a building collapses; the Soviet army crossing Lake Sivash; the juxtaposition of black and white with sepia and color imagery along with newsreel footage; the palm print of child dissipating into a lustrous surface; repeated mirror imagery; the arcane return of the prodigal father; a hot air balloon; the absurd training of cadets in a snowy (emotionally bankrupt) horizon; the loneliness of a dejected wife; an apparently arid day revealed in a window to be a transcendental monsoon. The personal and intimate are juxtaposed with a collective people. Time is indeed pliably sculpted.

The Mirror is possibly the closest cinema has come to evoking modernist poetry.

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

Still from Andrei Rublev (1966)When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

313. KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986)

“Koo! Koo!”–Kin-Dza-Dza

DIRECTED BY: Georgiy Daneliya

FEATURING: Stanislav Lyubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Evegeni Leonov, Yuri Yakovlev

PLOT: A construction foreman and a student meet a man on the Moscow streets who claims to be from another planet; humoring him, they use his “traveler” and are transported to the desert planet of Pluk. There, they meet a pair of aliens who only speak the words “koo!” (until they figure out how to translate the human’s language via telepathy). The aliens are amazed by the earthling’s matchsticks, which contain chemicals that are very valuable on Pluk, and barter to return them to Earth in exchange for boxes of matches—but can they be trusted?

Still from Kin Dza Dza (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • Kin-Dza-Dza was a minor flop when released in Soviet theaters in the winter of 1986, but later became a cult hit when it was split into two parts and shown on television.
  • The movie was virtually unknown outside of the former Soviet Union for many years, only available here in rare dubbed VHS copies until an (almost equally rare) 2005 Russico DVD release.
  • In 2013, original director and co-writer Georgiy Daneliya remade Kin Dza-Dza as an animated children’s movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The first appearance of Uef and Be, who arrive on scene in what’s best described as a flying junk bucket. Be emerges in a makeshift cage, squats with his palms facing forward, and says, “koo!” Uef takes two metal globes and places them on the ground flanking his craft. He also says “koo!” Our two Muscovite travelers are nonplussed.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Koo-based linguistics; Patsak nose bells; alien/Russian Sinatra karaoke

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This absurdist science fiction satire was deliberately odd from its inception. Today, since the vanished Soviet Union is almost as strange a world as the desert planet Pluk, Kin-Dza-Dza has become a movie about one alien culture lost inside another.


Unofficial Hollywood-style trailer for Kin-Dza-Dza

COMMENTS: You can describe the plot of Kin-Dza-Dza in detail Continue reading 313. KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986)

238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

AKA Sayat Nova

“Besides the film language suggested by Griffith and Eisenstein… cinema has not discovered anything revolutionarily new until The Color of Pomegranates, not counting the generally unaccepted language of the Andalusian Dog by Buñuel.”–Mikhail Vartanov

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sofiko Chiaureli, Vilen Galstyan, Giorgi Gegechkori, M. Alekyan, Spartak Bagashvili, Medea Japaridze

PLOT: The Color of Pomegranates is essentially impressionistic and plotless, although the tableaux roughly follow the chronology of the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova. We first see the poet as a child in a village, introduced to the images that will follow him throughout his life: the lute, the iconographic texts of the Armenian Apostolic Church, farm animals. As he grows, he marries, becomes a widower and then a priest, leaves his monastic calling to travel the countryside as a bard, and is finally killed by Persians.

Still from The Color of Pomegrenates (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sayat Nova (the name translates as “King of Song”) was an 18th century Armenian priest, poet and ashik (a wandering troubadour who played a “saz,” a Central Asian lute). Nova was killed by Iranian invaders for refusing to convert to Islam.
  • Sergei Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of his major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolves around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) deals with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) covers the mythology of his native Georgia. His final movie, Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • First titled Sayat Nova, Parajanov’s film was immediately banned by the Soviet censors, then five minutes of religious imagery were removed and the film was briefly released under the title The Color of Pomegranates. The missing footage was restored in 1992.
  • Parajanov’s difficulty with USSR censors stemmed both from his rejection of the official aesthetic doctrine of socialist realism and from concerns that his films would revive nationalist sentiments in formerly independent states (Ukraine and Armenia). Parajanov, who was bisexual, was jailed from 1973-1977 on what are widely considered fabricated charges of homosexual rape, and was not allowed to make another film until 1984.
  • Actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays at least five roles in the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Since actress Sofiko Chiaureli serves as Parajanov’s muse for this poetic odyssey, playing multiple roles (both male and female), it is only right that it is her face, reconfigured in dozens of guises, that we associate with the film. For our still, we selected her final appearance as the statuesque, granite-faced “Angel of Resurrection”—with a rooster perching on her shoulder.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Floating spinning lutes; Church of Sheep; shiny Mongol shoots a fresco

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all. Every carefully composed image in Pomegranates is coded to a meaning, but the key to interpreting them is missing. If you are a time-traveling Armenian from 1969 you will understand more of what is going on in Parajanov’s vast visual poem than the average viewer—but not a lot more. Don’t fight the movie, just allow yourself to drown in the mystery of its images.


Trailer for The Color of Pomegranates

COMMENTS: One of the earliest scenes in The Color of Pomegranates Continue reading 238. THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (1969)

LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

Idi i Smotri

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Elem Klimov

FEATURING: Aleksey Kravechenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Jüri Lumiste

PLOT: A teenage boy loses his innocence when he joins partisans fighting against the Nazis in 1943 Belarus.

Still from Come and See
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Although in a number of ways Come and See is a conventional war movie, its unremitting bleakness, violent interruptions, and dream-like passages make it transcend the mold.

COMMENTS: The difficulty in writing about this movie is apparent from the title. The sights and sounds of Come and See carry the movie, and much of the narrative is embedded in the grimy and beautiful imagery. Although the string of events is fairly straightforward, our sense of time is thrown to the wind. Everything happens over the course of a few days, but the young protagonist, at the same time, ages decades from his experiences. I have not seen a  more harrowing war movie, nor would I really care to.

Come and See tells the story of a young man who is eager to join the local partisans who are charged with causing havoc with the occupying German forces. The opening shot is of the back of an older man’s head as he looks over a sandy field. “Hey, are you crazy?” he asks an unseen character, “What do you think you’re doing? Playing a game?” Soon after issuing some nebulous warnings, we find the man’s son, Florya, with a friend. They are looking for a rifle, as that is the requirement to join the partisans. They scour filled-in trenches, hoping to find a ticket into the group. An odd shot shows young Florya seemingly making love to the ground, his arms buried deep. He makes a climatic grunt and rises, holding in his hands a muck coated SVT-40 rifle. In this quasi-sexual act, he takes his first step in becoming a man.

Much to his mother’s distress, the partisans take him in. Thus begins a recurring series of close-up faces. Time and again, Klimov relies on the actors’ faces to convey the mood of the scene; sometimes full of wonder, sometimes eager, often tragic. He juxtaposes the mother’s anguished face at the news of her son’s enlistment with the happy grin of the boy who finally feels he has grown up. He meets with the partisans and seems to be accepted, even posing in a large group photo of the squad, taken by an enthusiastic Soviet sporting a jokey Hitler-mustache.

Shortly thereafter, when he is left behind by the militia, he cannot control his tears, until he finds Glasha, a girl around his age. Together they have an innocent encounter, set in a lush wet forest. This invocation of Eden is quickly cut off by a warplane. Bombs soon drop, along with paratroopers. Eden is destroyed—to be found again in a dreamlike sequence that starts off the next morning.

After that point, Come and See allows the viewer no hope of beauty. Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: COME AND SEE (1985)

162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)

Ambavi Suramis Tsikhitsa; Legend of the Surami Fortress (alternate translation)

“In Ron Holloway’s reverent documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem… an unbowed Paradjanov speaks nonchalantly of being accused of ‘surrealism,’ never pointing out the surreality of a government that views surrealism as a crime.”–Keith Phipps

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Sergei Parajanov, Dodo Abashidze

FEATURING: Leila Alibegashvilli, Sofiko Chiaureli, Zura Kipshidze, Dodo Abashidze, Veriko Andjaparidze

PLOT: On the desolate steppes of Central Asia, a Georgian prince has given slave Durmishkhan his freedom; although he promises to make his fortune and buy her freedom, his lover, Vardo, senses that he will never return. Indeed, in his travels Durmishkhan meets another woman and fathers a child with her, while a bereaved Vardo becomes a celibate fortune teller. Years later, with a Muslim invasion imminent, the czar seeks guidance from Vardo on how to stop the fortress of Suram from collapsing every time his men rebuild it.

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was Sergei Parajanov’s first film after spending 15 years in and out of Soviet prisons on charges ranging from homosexuality, rape, and pornography to bribery and trafficking in religious icons. Many view his persecution as politically motivated. Along with intellectuals and celebrities like , fellow filmmakers , François Truffaut, , , Michelangelo Antonioni, and  all agitated for his release.
  • Parajanov was born in Georgia to Armenian parents, and began his filmmaking career in Ukraine. Each of Parajanov’s major films is built around the folklore of a specific Soviet satellite state: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) revolved around Ukrainian legends, The Color of Pomegranates (1968) dealt with an Armenian poet, and The Legend of Suram Fortress covered the mythology of his native Georgia. Ashik Kerib (1988) shows an Azerbaijani influence.
  • Although the movie bears all of Parajanov’s stylistic trademarks, Dodo Abashidze (who also plays the role of Osman-Agha in the film) is credited as co-director, as he is also in Parajanov’s final completed film, Ashik Kerib. Abashidze has no solo directing credits but was a popular actor, and his influence is viewed as a major factor in getting Parajanov released from jail and allowed to return to filmmaking.
  • The Legend of Suram Fortress was based on Georgian folktales which had been turned into a novel by the writer Daniel Chonkadze in the 19th century. The story had been made into a silent film in 1922.
  • The Suram (or Surami) fortress still stands in Georgia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This is a hard choice indeed: The Legend of Suram Fortress is a work of visual poetry, and picking out a single frame is like picking out the single best line from “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey.” Each scene in Suram is a meticulous exercise in staging, pageantry, and costuming. For our representative moment, we’ll chose the ceremony where the peasants pray to St. George to protect them from the (metaphorical Muslim) dragon: costumed worshipers parade by in a line, led by a prancing white horse decorated with silvery tinsel, before a smoky field, while the Saint’s icon appears as a glittering ball of light. The scene is low-tech but beautiful, literally realized with smoke and mirrors. In a movie with such a rigorously realized formalism, almost any other choice of image would be equally indelible.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fans of will likely to groove to the vibe of Sergei Parajanov, recognizing the obsessively arranged compositions and the mysticism that hangs like thick clouds of incense over the film. Rather than taking a wide-angle, pan-theistic view like Jodorowsky, however, Parajanov focuses each of his films narrowly and intently on the legends of a single culture. In Suram Fortress he digs deep to uncover fragmentary narrative relics from ancient Georgia, telling of the legendary foundation of a nation in a confused era when Christianity, Islam and paganism all fought for the hearts of her people. Soaking in a bath of exotic medieval sounds and images, you emerge from the movie feeling Georgia in your bones, while at the same time realizing you know next to nothing about the culture Parajanov simultaneously illuminates and obscures. The visions crumble before your eyes as he builds them.


The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody discusses The Legend of Suram Fortress

COMMENTS: Although there is a (digressive and fractured) story, the essence of The Legend of Suram Fortress is in its astounding visual tableaux: Continue reading 162. THE LEGEND OF SURAM FORTRESS (1984)