The Ukrainian film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” won almost
every, award in sight on the 1964 film festival circuit. But it’s become even
more important in recent years, as a reminder not only of a talented director -
Sergei Parajanov - but also of the restrictive Soviet approach to the arts.
making a film that won awards in London, New York, San Francisco, Mar del Plata
and Montreal, you see, Parajanov didn’t go on to become one of Russia’s leading
directors. He went on to become a political prisoner, charged with the usual
things Soviet dissidents are sent away for. He’s in the fourth year of a
five-year sentence, which he more or less brought upon himself with a fiery
address to an artists conference at which he called for an end to socialist
realism and the beginning of more subjective, personal Soviet films.
of Forgotten Ancestors” could stand as an example of the sort of film he was
calling for. It’s 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.
the Soviet Union, nationalism and regional identities are still highly charged
forces. And Parajanov’s film is overtly regional: He celebrates the births,
marriages, deaths and folk customs of the people of the Carpathians. Their
holidays and festivals seem filled with the energy of countless Zorbas, but
then there are the long days of labor, and Parajanov follows them through long
winters, storm-swept springs and blistering summers.
story follows the life and death of Ivan, whose childhood sweetheart slips from
a mountain trail and drowns in the river below. Ivan grows morose and
secretive, but finally does settle down and marry a strikingly beautiful woman.
Even then he’s not happy: They can’t have children, and in their superstition
they consult witches and the supernatural. Ivan himself becomes obsessed with
the notion that his first sweetheart will be miraculously restored to him, and
there is a tense scene while he’s praying with his wife and adds the words
“…and the drowned” after the prayer for the dead.
visual style is sometimes bursting with life, sometimes merely overwrought. A
point-of-view shot, for example, has the camera swooping straight down as a
tree falls on young Ivan’s father. Other shots zoom in and out of forests and
barnyards and celebrations, and during violent scenes he sometimes interrupts
shots with freeze frames and tints his film; during a death scene,
blood-drenched horses leap across the screen. A few of these pyrotechnics can
go a long way, and there were times in “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” when I
thought they went too far.
Parajanov has a genuine gift. He has the kind of heedless energy you glimpse in
some of the early work of Martin Scorsese, pounding camerawork so filled with
itself it can hardly contain the story. And for anyone who’s interested in the
Ukrainian culture and customs of perhaps a century ago, “Shadows of Forgotten
Ancestors” is a treasure, a repository of costumes, masks, superstitions and
beliefs, courtship customs and the sufferings of short lives with too much work