Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Soviet Union, Sergei Parajanov)

An incredibly rare screening of Parajanov's film, part of the 'Today is the Tomorrow of Yesterday' season at the BFI Southbank, which focuses on erasure. In this case, the erasure of love, culture and ultimately life. Until this point, Parajanov had made a number of pro-Soviet propaganda films and was considered a safe director. This reputation changed for good with 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors', a film that was commissioned as nothing more than a love story in the Romeo and Juliet style, but ultimately became a celebration of Ukranian culture, specifically that of the Hutsul culture in the Carpathian mountains. This culture had been practically destroyed by the time the film was made, so reviving it obviously was something the authorities were going to take issue with given the promotion of a homogeneous Soviet identity. Parajanov's difficulties with the authorities would increase when he made 'The Colour of Pomegranates' four years later, a film I recently reviewed. In many ways 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors' can be seen as something of a dty run, where his interest in looking into minority cultures and aesthetic radicalism would take greater shape.

Set during the 1860s (the first was partly made to commemorate the centenary of Mykhailo Mykhailovych Kotsiubynsky's birth), Parajanov starts with an absolutely breathtaking scene of a tree falling, killing a man. Starting with an overhead shot, the camera then follows the point of view of the falling tree. And this is one crucial difference between this film and 'The Colour of Pomegranates'. This film favours very athletic camerawork, also seen in a 360 degree shot circling two lovers later - all thanks to the efforts of DoP Yuri Illienko. This contrasts with the long takes and lack of camera movement in 'The Colour of Pomegranates'. What follows is a tale of warring families. Ivan's father is killed by Marichka's father in another superbly shot scene - as the fatal blow is struck, the blood literally spills onto the lens, and the two children (played by Ivan Mikolajchuk and Larisa Kadochnikova as adults) soon fall in love. Set to marry, tragedy strikes when Marichka accidentally drowns. Grief-stricken, Ivan becomes a hermit, but later marries Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), though this is an uneasy union since Ivan is evidently haunted by and in love with Marichka, and is inevitably destined for a tragic end.

Aspects of 'Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors' seem to be filmed as if Parajanov was showing the customs and traditions of this community in documentary fashion. It certainly would come as no surprise to learn that non-professionals were used as Parajanov meticulously documents these customs. The spiritual values of the Hutsul community seem to be a careful mish-mash of Christian and Pagan rituals. Just look at Ivan and Palagna's wedding, which is performed in traditional Hutsul fashion, with the bride and groom blindfolded and yoked together. Every festival has its own rituals, and as well as this, there's the local sorcerer, whom everyone allegedly has a need for. Palagna herself practices black magic in order to fall pregnant. This black magic at work is another of Parajanov's technical flourishes; there's an evident change in the elements (storms, winds), flashes and freeze frames, as well as a tree spontaneously combusting. Although the film has a more conventional narrative than 'The Colour of Pomegranates' as well as great aesthetic imagination, it doesn't have the same mind-blowing effect that the latter has. An artist incredibly singular in his vision, Parajanov's films have impressed me on certain levels but I've not been totally won over just yet. 3.5/5

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