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 glasnost. It’s hard to know exactly what pissed the censors off more: his rejection of socialist realism, or his use of nationalist motifs. Socialist realism was the official state doctrine that all art should transparently and realistically display the class struggle, the triumph and solidarity of the worker, and other official positions of the Communist state—i.e., every movie, book or statue must ultimately serve as propaganda. As a period piece, perhaps Shadows might have been exempted from some of these constraints. It seems to have been approved for production because Soviet authorities saw original writer Mikhail Kotsyubinsky, who lived through the Russian Revolution and produced anti-Tsarist works, as one of their own, and wanted to honor him on the centennial of his birth. The problem with the resulting movie, leaving aside the serious concerns about the experimental camerawork that throws objective reality out the window, is that, although it focuses on the pre-proletariat peasantry rather than the pre-bourgeois nobility, it shows workers lives as brutal, short, and sad. Even that view might have worked for the censors if Ivan’s unhappy existence were a result of exploitation by mean old capitalists; but it’s not the landed classes that oppress this worker, but fate. He falls in love, his beloved dies senselessly, he soldiers on, his next love betrays him, he dies senselessly. At one point, Ivan’s mother breaks our hearts simply by reciting the names of her six dead children. Where is the uplift? What useful communal moral will audiences derive from this miserable, degenerate work?

I suspect that is what made the authorities even angrier than Parajanov’s disdain for socialist realism was his subtle appeal to Ukrainian nationalism. For the rest of his career the director would travel the circuit of Soviet satellite states—his native Armenia (for The Color of Pomegranates), Georgia (The Legend of Suram Fortress), and finally Azerbaijan (Ashik Akrib)—making movies that celebrated these locales’ particular cultures and traditions, pointedly ignoring wider Soviet interests. Parajanov was a true multiculturalist; he did not restrict himself to Ukrainian, or Armenian, or even Russian legends and folklore, but acted as a preservationist for distinct cultures, implicitly opposing their amalgamation into universal Soviet society. He did not claim any set of traditions superior to the others, but merely opposed their disappearance. He wanted people not to forget the wisdom and beauty of their ancestors, whomever they might be.

His reverence for Ukrainian (or more specifically, Hutsul) culture finds expression here in two sensual forms: costuming and music. Ukrainians have arguably the most elaborate and colorful wardrobes of any of the world’s tribes, with blood reds and snowy whites predominating, headdresses for the peasant women, with every garment from hats to robes to footwear elaborately embroidered with flowers or geometric patterns. We get a good look at the complicated Hutsul garb in a humorous honeymoon sequence: with the camera coyly focused on her ankles, Ivan strips off his new bride’s layers of clothing one by one. First a scarf falls to the floor, then her outer jacket, then her underclothes slips off to reveal her red and yellow socks, before the groom finally rips off her simple necklace to leave her totally nude before him.  As far as the music goes, this is true folk music, with Jews’ harps and shrill native trumpets (trembitas) predominating, and chants from mostly female choirs. It’s all high-pitched and scratchy and tremulous, a defiant wail at a harsh life, challenging to the modern listener. The musical accompaniment is almost constantly on the scene, a reminder of the peculiar otherness of the setting, but one naïve love song has an important place: a plaintive ballad composed of only a few notes, sung obsessively by the lovers in turn (“remember me twice a day/I remember you seven times an hour”) that accompanies Ivan and Marichka’s doomed love to the grave like a dirge. Add to these elements the pastoral mise-en-scene of the wooden country churches; the omnipresent crosses and icons; the scenes focusing on peasant work as they build homes and haul straw; the erotically charged horseshoeing; and the seasonal parade of beloved Christmas characters like the bear, the rat, and the Grim Reaper. Parajanov assembles all this material to take us into another world, one far simpler than our own, but filled with luxurious richness and slow rhythms; a nostalgic, romantic, escapist Carpathian resort as far from socialist reality as an American teen beach party movie would be.

But for all the reverent traditionalism of the subject matter, Ancestors is radical in its form and technique. It’s not that realism does not interest Parajanov; he views it as an enemy, an obstacle that would impede his storytelling. To make it true to the feel of an oral folk tale, he abstracts the plot to focus on setting and feeling more than events. The story, while so simple it is almost bare, is told with ellipses, lurching forward in time. Although events proceed in sequence, the normal progress of time becomes irrelevant. Ivan crosses a plank over a river where women work and is immediately followed by Marichka, although in fact they must have arrived some time apart. It’s not even clear when the story takes place; all we can say is it is in the pre-industrial, pre-modern world, but it could be set in any century after the arrival of Christianity and before Communism. If this procedure is disorienting for the audience, Parajanov is similarly disinterested in orienting us in space. There is an inescapable sense of place, but no sense of geography whatsoever. When we first arrive in Ivan’s village, it is simply a collection of characters arranged against a blank backdrop of snow: women playing Jews’ harps, men carrying game slung over their shoulders, madmen gamboling about, as if they are players on a theater stage rather than a movie. In Ivan’s death scene in the tavern, the camera wheels around the four (?) walls of the bar as the angry Ivan advances; he is struck with an axe in the head and makes the same circuit in reverse, with the color now desaturated and turned reddish orange and a buzzing noise filling our ears like welling blood. The tavern feels like a real, solid place, stuffed with vivid (if strange) details like the axe conveniently hung on the wall, but it’s a room whose layout you can’t actually picture in your mind or map out, a dream setting. Parajanov’s pioneering psychedelic camerawork magnifies this indistinct staging: zooms, images seen through a clear pool or reflected in a lake, shaky tracking shots, the use of tinting or the switch to black and white when Ivan is in the depths of grief and despair, a point-of-view shot from a falling tree, the fluid movements of Ivan and Marichka as they glide through a birch forest, arms stretched out to find each other, all techniques to remove the viewer from shallow realism and relocate them in a mythic place. The expressionist camera takes not merely an active role in telling their story, but becomes the main narrator, conveying more meaning that the sparse dialogue.

What is the meaning behind this simple story? Although Parajanov abstracts it so that it becomes infinitely interpretable, the tale’s surface theme is idealized romance versus the harsh reality of love. Ivan’s ardor for Marichka is cut short, so it is never tested. She becomes a fantasy, an icon. His real wife, Palagna, is the more complex and “real” of the two women. Because we identify with Ivan, Palagna becomes a villainess; but she is also wronged by Ivan, who neglects and dishonors her by pining for a dead girl and ignoring the breathing woman in his bed. Palagna only betrays him while seeking to bring him a child, thinking that will resurrect his dying love for her. The sorcerer may be a rotten choice for an adulterous lover; but at least he’s alive. Ivan’s love for Marichka gives his life meaning, but unhappy meaning. And, as much as his timeless romance might seem pure, Ivan betrays Marichka’s memory by marrying another. He can’t have it both ways: he can’t see one girl as his true, eternal love, but wed another. When he does, he seals his fate.

On a deeper level, Parajanov’s ethnography and romantic formalism indicate a dissatisfaction with modernity, and maybe even with reality as it exists outside the frame he controls. What impresses in Ancestors (and Parajanov’s national fantasies in general) is how every moment is imbued with meaning. Every custom expresses some social code passed down from your ancestors. A Hutsul wedding involves blindfolds and a symbolic yoke placed around the couple’s neck. Sharing a pipe is an act of infidelity. Every movement, every line of speech, is impregnated with ritual significance. A Parajanov character can’t take a step without us analyzing it, looking for the deeper significance. Nobody stages a scene like Parajanov, who arranges every detail with a theater director’s eye and a cinematographer’s soul. Characters walk precisely to their marks so as not to disturb the compositions. Orthodox rites and local superstitions blend together; people preface every statement with references to Christ, but resort to sorcery in times of need. He fills the character’s lives with funerals, weddings, lovemaking, feuds, dancing, grief, labor, magic, and death: entire lifetimes, entire cultures compressed into ninety minutes. This unreal, elaborately constructed world of the romanticized past is so much more appealing than reality, it’s no wonder the Soviets found it subversive and threatening.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the most unusual films I’ve seen, a barrage of images, music and noises, shot with such an active camera we almost need seatbelts.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (1978 screening)

“The most plastic-fantastic of Soviet new-wave movies… ethnographic cinema run wild. This is a folk ballad—a tale of blood feuds, sorcery, and star-crossed love—that’s not so much lyric as lysergic.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

“… stylistically the film is jaw-dropping — somewhere between the French New Wave and an acid trip.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress

OFFICIAL SITE:

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – U.S. distributor Kino Lorber’s site for the film

IMDB LINK: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors -Director Martiros M. Vartanov, of the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute, reflects on a screening of Ancestors

Teni Zabytykh Predkov – Film (Movie) Plot and Review – A bibliography and impressive analysis by David Cook

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Multidimensionality of Memory and Eternity – Background and analysis from Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed and Svitlana Melnyk of Indiana University

Double Take: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) – Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick dialogue on the film for Pop Matters

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – Monograph from Jamie Chambers of the UK’s Folk Film Gathering investigating the term “folk” as it relates to the movie (pdf)

“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” – Sergei Parajanov (1965) – Another good analysis by “The Film Sufi”

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors 45 years later – Report from a Ukrainian magazine on the controversial first local screening of the film

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Sergei Paradjanov: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Kinosputniks) – A 112-page companion to the film by Joshua First

Note: Carl Sagan used the title “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are” for a book about human evolution; other than the name inspiring the title, Sagan’s book has nothing to do with Kotsyubinsky‘s novel or Parajanov’s movie

HOME VIDEO INFO: The (unrestored) film was released on DVD from Kino Lorber in 2008 (buy). Although Ancestors really deserves a restored print like The Color of Pomegranates recently received, the beauty and creativity of Parajanov’s images easily transcend a somewhat flat presentation. The original mono audio is fine, given the low-fi sound of Ukrainian folk music score; you can select a 5.1 surround sound audio if you prefer. There are options for English, French or Spanish subtitles, along with a Russian voice-over. The extras are significant: “Islands,” a 40 minute documentary exploring the friendship between Parajanov and fellow iconoclast ; “Songs,” an experimental short (director uncredited) dedicated to Parajanov; a biography of writer Mikhail Kotsyubinsky; filmographies of the cast and crew; and two photo albums, one of Parajanov and one of scenes from Ancestors. There are also four trailers for films from Kino, including one for The Legend of Suram Fortress, although none for Ancestors.

If you love your Parajanov, you can also purchase a Kino’s 4-disc set with Ancestors, Pomegrantes, Suram Fortress, and his final completed film, the Azerbaijani-centric Ashik Karib (buy).

No Blu-ray of Ancestors exists, but you can find the movie on video-on-demand (rent or buy).

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