Tag Archives: Ukrainian

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)

CAPSULE: THE TRIBE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi

FEATURING: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova

PLOT: Upon arriving at a school for the deaf, a teenage boy is quickly recruited into a vicious gang that conducts petty crimes, including prostituting two female students.

Still from The Tribe (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although a Ukrainian juvenile delinquent movie told entirely in untranslated sign language is far off the average person’s radar, the straightforward subject matter isn’t weird enough for the List. The Tribe is more of a formal novelty than anything.

COMMENTS: First there was Deafula, and now The Tribe. That’s where sign language cinema begins and ends. The Tribe is not made for deaf audiences, however—Ukrainian sign language is not completely intelligible to signers of other nationalities—nor is it about the experience of being deaf. Being able to read sign language would frustrate the intentional alienation effect and impede the film’s experiment in non-verbal storytelling.  With patience, you can follow everything that happens in this archetypal gangster rise-and-fall tale: our (essentially) nameless protagonist (the credits call him Sergey) is forcibly recruited into the local syndicate, proves his worth in a series of trials, rises on the ladder, and comes into conflict with his superiors. The details of what the deaf characters are actually saying to each other, and the few narrative mysteries that pop up, are cleverly divulged through context or cleaned up by later revelations, no differently than they would be in a spoken language feature. The complete removal of dialogue takes silent film one step further, and enforces a dogmatic minimalism on the picture. Language, you realize, only provides detail, and here the details have been stripped away. The rest of the film’s style—bleak sets, absence of music, extremely long takes—reinforce the starkness.

The long takes, although well-executed, are the film’s biggest drawback, in that Slaboshpytskyi habitually keeps the camera running far longer than necessary—sometimes on scenes that are themselves unnecessary. Sergey’s introduction to the school includes a long ceremonial ritual where students give flowers to their teachers and several minutes of unintelligible (to us) lecturing (in one of only two scenes set in the classroom); this far more than satisfies our need to orient ourselves in a school setting. Finding a room for that first night is a similarly drawn out process, as sleeping arrangements seem to be unassigned, then later there are scenes of two girls getting passport photos and waiting in line to see a government functionary…. Although the length of each of these scenes reinforces the movie’s ponderous rhythm, by the end, the 130-minute running time becomes problematic. It’s axiomatic in writing that you include nothing unnecessary in the finished work, and there are entire scenes here that could have been easily cut. I’m not including the scenes of brutal violence and cruelty (which are justified by the milieu), of near-explicit sex (less justified), or of a real-time back alley medical procedure, in that assessment. These “strong” scenes provide a nihilistic artsploitation sensibility that will turn off many, but supply the film’s primary appeal for some.

Even though understanding precisely what’s being said in sign language is not necessary to follow the plot, constantly seeing the characters communicating on the screen without knowing what they’re saying creates a level of frustration and anxiety in the viewer. It’s an inversion of the deaf person’s experience in the speaking world (although that fact is more of a footnote than the film’s raison d’être). The fact that the story can be followed at all—much less that it is at times gripping—is a testament to the director’s skill. It’s an artful gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless, and The Tribe is more of a great achievement than a great movie. Days later, I was still wrestling with whether I liked it or not, and whether (and to whom) I could recommend it—which is a sort of tribute, I think. Letterboxd user Brian Koukol nailed The Tribe‘s position in film history when he described it as “a merit badge for a cinephiles.” I’m not sure if the reward here is commensurate to the challenge involved, but you won’t forget the experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the use of sign language, deafness and silence itself adds several heady new ingredients to the base material, alchemically creating something rich, strange and very original.”–Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

CAPSULE: MY JOY (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Sergei Loznitsa

FEATURING: Viktor Nemets

PLOT: A Russian truck driver veers off the main highway and into a hinterland of institutionalized

Still from My Joy (2010)

corruption and disjointed narrative.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Joy is serious, slow, bleak, oblique, and political; put together, all these adjectives coalesce into “important” in the mind of the average film critic or festival programmer. They do not, however, add up to “entertaining” in the eyes of the average viewer. Add to this the fact that the adjective we are most interested in—“weird”—is present in the film only at trace levels, and My Joy is more of interest to cineastes who make it a point to see important films, as well as to those with a special interest in the sociopolitical situation inside modern day Russia, than it is to pure weirdophiles.

COMMENTS: My Joy‘s confusing journey into the Russian heart of darkness makes more sense after a second viewing, although thanks to plentiful narrative elisions there are still many mysteries that are never resolved. After an unexplained funereal opening, the story proper begins when long haul Russian truck driver Georgy slips away from a couple of crooked checkpoint cops as they are distracted by a more attractive detainee. In a brutal flashback to the days of the post liberation of Berlin Red Army, an aged hitchhiker tells him a story of how military bullies stole his suitcase, his wife, and even his name. (It’s not the last time the film will travel back in time to that particular era; this bitter nostalgia suggests both that the current Russian situation resembles those anarchic times and, more fatalistically, that graft and thievery are the way business has always been done in this part of the world). A child prostitute then shows Georgy a detour around an accident, and he finds himself lost in the wilderness with his cargo until he meets a group of petty thieves. At this point, about an hour has passed—very slowly, in the Russian style, with lots of long shots of people milling about and cab-level views of the trucker driving along deserted roads between the sparse action. Suddenly, it seems that Georgy (the only decent and honest man in all of Russia, as far as we have seen) disappears from the story, as we find ourselves Continue reading CAPSULE: MY JOY (2010)