SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS (Sergei Parajanov, 1964)

Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov’s tribute to Ukrainian mentor Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Tini zabutykh predkiv draws upon weirder, denser visual material than does the master’s beautiful piece of Ukrainian folklore, Zvenigora (1928). I find Parajanov’s film remarkable but also, because I can only imperfectly follow it, frustrating.
     There is a melodramatic plot in the Carpathian Mountains a hundred years earlier, with Ivan in love with Marichka, the daughter of his father’s killer; she dies, but her memory prevents Ivan from loving the girl he eventually marries, Palagna. Ivan’s constant rebuffs move Palagna in the direction of a sorcerer, who kills Ivan in a tavern hatchet fight.
     This linear tale, however, exists as pieces of narrative that are buried in a dazzling kaleidoscope of imagery. Parajanov’s shots include all sorts of camera angles and movements amidst elemental Nature and applied to robust humanity, including shots up from under water, in both rich color and chilly black and white, with explosions of music (lots of Jew’s harp), rivulets of freeze frames, and sheafs of Orthodox Christian iconography, symbolism, ritual. The film unfolds in titled vignettes. There are two fatal sacrificial acts early on: Ivan’s elder brother dies protecting Ivan from a falling tree; Marichka dies rescuing a lamb. Curiously, Ivan, the sole survivor of eight siblings, doesn’t seem fazed by his brother’s death. “Let go of me!” he says over and over as he tries pulling away from the crushed corpse with a poignant grip.
     Life is harsh, full of hard work. One wonderful shot follows the sharpening of a scythe. All life, it appears, is preparation for death; familial love, romantic love, a preparation for loss.
     The sorcerer who kills Ivan resembles him—but grotesquely. Perhaps he embodies Ivan’s refusal to embrace life after Marichka’s death.

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