Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965)

Sergei Parajanov | 1hr 50min

It takes a story as rooted in convention and archetypes as this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ inspired plot to imbue Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors with solid narrative form, as Sergei Parajanov certainly needs it to hold together his wildly avant-garde experiments in style. Comparisons may be drawn to Mikhail Kalatozov, his Soviet contemporary of similarly Georgian origin, especially in the untethered camerawork swinging through scenes with reckless abandon, and the low angles framing faces against monochromatic skies. But where Kalatozov was an actively propagandistic filmmaker working for the USSR government and gently pushing the boundaries of socialist realism, Parajanov broke all the rules in inventing his own unhinged, magical realist style that would only serve to inflame national authorities.

Parajanov constructing crosses in his mise-en-scène as formal markers of tragedy.

In a Hutsul village nestled in a Ukrainian mountain range, a young man, Ivan, falls in love with Marichka, a woman who lies on the other side of a feudal divide. When she passes away shortly after their marriage, he grows depressed, unable to shake her ghostly memory. Even when he finally remarries, her presence continues to be felt, and gradually erodes his relationship with his new wife.

Parajanov has no pretences about the simplicity of this narrative. It is a folk tale, first and foremost, powerfully rooted in Hutsul customs and Orthodox traditions which remain unifying forces through the clashes and tragedies of Ivan’s life. When misfortune strikes, Parajanov sets up crosses in his scenery, a constant reminder of how this community turns to spiritualism when confronted by life’s hardships, especially marking occasions of weddings and funerals with their own uniquely Hutsul rituals. Having been raised in this culture of pervasive religious dominance, Ivan comes to depend on his connection to the divine as a manner to transcend the material world and maintain contact with his lost love. As we witness in a colourful, hypnotic montage dissolving between Ivan’s thoughtful face in prayer and Orthodox iconography of Christ, this belief is his saving grace, injecting a peaceful radiance in the middle of an otherwise entirely black-and-white sequence of the film following Marichka’s death. Though the montage is short-lived, colour does eventually return to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors with the arrival of Palahna, Ivan’s new love, this time becoming a more permanent fixture.

A colour montage made up of long dissolves, firmly binding Ivan to his Orthodox beliefs.

With the introduction of pagan phenomena in the film’s final act, the Christian bedrock of Ivan’s life starts to destabilise, as restless spirits and sorcerers disrupt the Hutsul traditions that Parajanov has so painstakingly detailed. Still, this shift in focus does not even slightly signify a shift in momentum, as his camera continues to spin, whip, twirl, tilt, pan, and track characters across the village’s rocky rivers, snowy forests, and rustic interiors, finding strikingly surreal compositions in each of these settings. Not everything he does falls in line with the rest of the film, as at times Parajanov seems more invested in his erratic whims of visual artistry than tying it all together, but there is still powerful form to this fable. In clashing directly with the religious and cultural customs it is depicting, the disorientating, energetic experiments of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors effectively shake off the stagnancy of this village’s repetitive lifestyle, instead settings its sights on the haunting mysticism which lies just beyond the boundaries of a narrow-minded society, and within the minds of its own characters.

Too many painterly images to include on one page. Parajanov is a thoroughly experimental artist, always finding the most strikingly audacious angle or composition for any given scene.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is currently unavailable to watch in Australia.

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