In wake of the BFI Southbank’s recent Sergei Paradjanov retrospective, Artificial Eye is releasing the DVD of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), the film that marked a seismic shift in Paradjanov’s filmmaking style and also inadvertently landed the controversial Georgian director in a Soviet jail.
Both aesthetically and thematically the film departs dramatically from cinematic social realism, the style of choice for Soviet communist governments. An adaptation of the novel by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors traces the life of Ivan, a Ukrainian peasant, who falls in love with Marichka, the daughter of the man who killed his father. Because of the feuds between the two families, their love is forbidden and doomed. As Ivan battles with grief, the vivid colours of the traditional costumes and landscape fade to a bleak, desolate monochrome. This story of an ordinary peasant hero may have been welcomed by the Soviet authorities; but in this case, the peasant in question belongs to an ethno-cultural group of Ukrainians, known as the Hutsuls, and Paradjanov uses the film to explore and emphasise their traditions. This championing of the Hutsuls’ history and culture did not sit well with the Soviet government’s policy of Russification, but Paradjanov was adamant that the dialogue should be spoken in the Hutsul language and not dubbed into Russian. Consequently, Paradjanov was blacklisted and imprisoned (this sentence was the first of three throughout his lifetime).
Paradjanov viewed the governmental control of the film industry as catastrophic. In an interview conducted a few years before his death in 1990, in characteristically dramatic fashion, he remarked: ‘Eisenstein died with only one iota of his potential fulfilled… that’s a terrible tragedy’. After seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Paradjanov saw an alternative to the restrictive filmmaking style of his youth. The resultant aesthetic of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a mix of swooping, swirling camera angles and wide tableaux of breathtaking landscapes. In the potent opening sequence, the camera tracks a young Ivan, muffled up in a bright red coat and fur hat, trekking through snowy woodland. His arm outstretched with a loaf of bread, he calls up to an undisclosed figure on the hillside. The face of a waving, desperate man appears in urgent close-up. Suddenly the camera is up high in the treetops, a loud creak sounds, and the shot falls down past black, elongated trunks to the snow below. The figure of the little boy is pushed out of the tree’s path and the camera appears to land on the terrified face of the older man. Paradjanov cuts to his body trapped under the fallen tree, the little boy tugging at his arms through the broken branches. A horn sounds and we see the child running and tripping down the bright, white hillside, before cutting to a scene of a crucifix being erected in the bleak, wintry landscape.
This powerfully constructed opening exemplifies what is to unfold over the next hour and a half: the tragic subject matter - how innocence is lost through the experience of death - and the way in which Paradjanov approaches narrative. It is telling that at one point we see the action from the tree’s point of view and, after the moment of death and grief, the camera surveys the mountainside as the child makes his way back to his village. Rather than the focus of the shot, the little boy is merely a figure within the landscape. Nature is a major protagonist in the film. Indeed, extreme panoramic shots of characters racing up and down hills and across plains recur throughout the story. In Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Paradjanov is not concerned with in-depth characterisation or character development; instead, he portrays the doomed Romeo and Juliet love affair as a universal, mythical folk story. The camera acts as an omnipotent narrator, rather than as a means of projecting the character’s innermost feelings.
Ivan and Marichka’s story is a tragic tale; but not one that is specific to the characters involved. While the Hutsul culture pervades the film, it is never fully clear in what historical period the action takes place, further adding to the universality of the narrative. Paradjanov used largely unknown actors and non-actors (whose acting style is theatrical and at times melodramatic) to convey a story that could be experienced by anyone, anywhere and in any time. This attempt to universalise the tale may alienate some viewers hoping for a great deal of specific personal emotion. But it is not a film devoid of passion or sentiment; it is just that the emotion is of the uncomplicated, folk-tale kind.
When Paradjanov made Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, he was experimenting with a new approach to filmmaking for the first time and the aesthetic achievement is spectacular. Although much has been made of the majestically beautiful visuals of the film the use of sound is also remarkable - idiosyncratic, bizarre and wonderful; spoken dialogue is largely replaced by a cacophony of horns, pipes, Jew’s harps and chanting to a dizzying effect. In his later films, notably The Colour of Pomegranates (1967), Paradjanov managed to create a subtler and perhaps more coherent emotional pull on his audience but the startling aesthetic and thematic seeds were sown with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It is commendable that Artificial Eye is providing an opportunity for audiences to see Paradjanov’s first attempt at an utterly extraordinary style of filmmaking.