Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sergei Paradjanov | Тіні забутих предків / Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors)

the deer returns to the birch cross
by Douglas Messerli

Ivan Chendej and Sergei Paradjanov (screenplay, based on a story by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky), Sergei Paradjanov (director) Тіні забутих предків / Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors) / 1964

Given Sergei Paradjanov’s tame, early film-making, no one might have expected his first full length feature of 1964, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors to be so subversive. The Russian authorities, moreover, had seemingly encouraged some of the racial minorities of the vast Soviet Union to celebrate in films, dance, and literary publications their ethnicity, which this film seemingly set out to do—in this case exploring the Ukrainian Hutsul culture of the Carpathian Mountains.

This first Paradjanov film, moreover, does primarily use the more disjunctive forms of tableaux vivants that employs in his later works; although there are certainly static and highly theatrical scenes employing peasant dances, the marriage and funeral ceremonies, Christmas celebration and other social events, in which the very audaciousness of the costumes and the lateral, head-on, often comic presentation of these activities, much of the film is shot in nature, the meadows of the mountain villages, the streams, fields, and birch forests that give at least a pretense to realist filmmaking.

       The story is, as in most of Paradjanov’s works, a simple one. Two feuding families, the Paliychuks and the Gutenyuks declare war upon each other, with the Paliychucks losing several family members. The young son of the Paliychucks, Ivan (Ivan Mykolajchuk), however, espies the Gutenyuk’s young daughter, Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), who immediately intrigues him and, as they grow up together, soon discover themselves in a kind of Romeo and Juliet situation, where despite they deep love they fear they will never be allowed to marry. In order to help support his mother, Ivan leaves home to work as a field-laborer, promising Marichka that he will return home within a year to marry her.

      Working in the meadows, in the midst of a natural world which the director celebrates with a series of startling images, Ivan increasingly misses his lover and wonders, after a story told by a worker, why he has left without marrying her. One beautiful night, a star appears in the sky sending out rays of light that seem to signal him. Not far away, Mirichka also spots the rays and is led on a search through the forest that ends with her saving a lamb. But before she can return with the stray, the soil along a cliff gives way, sending her into the river, where she drowns. Sensing something is happening, Ivan descends to the stream where he, along with others, discovers Mirichka’s body. Burying the young girl with a birch cross over his grave, Ivan observes a deer standing nearby.

Falling into despair, Ivan becomes a kind of homeless recluse, his activities and rare appearances becoming the subject of the old women’s gossip and legends. He looks older than his age, his hair and beard are left untrimmed, his clothes are in tatters.

      Shoeing a horse, he one day meets another woman Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), far more sexually aware and less innocent that Mirichka. But within a short time Ivan Palagna decide to marry, the marriage ceremony played out in grand Paradjanov theatrical style.

      Christmas comes and goes, as it becomes clear that Palagna and Ivan are not sleeping together. In order to bear a child, Palagna dabbles in sorcery, walking the fields naked in the midst of night, where she encounters a lecherous villager, determined to have her. As time passes, it becomes more and more obvious that Palagna is having affairs. At a tavern, which the couple enter together, she openly flirts with another man. And when the interloper nearly kills another drinker, Ivan challenges the bully, but is killed in the scuffle. The film ends in a Pieta, a whirl of destruction and the faces of young children looking into a room, perhaps observing a version of the very story we have just seen portrayed.

     Although it is clear that Mykhailo Kotsiubnsky’s tale has a great deal of significance to the Hutsul culture, it is surely the story that so troubled Soviet censors, but Paradjanov’s energized telling of it, as, at moments, he speeds up his camera into a kind of gyrating dance in which his figures become abstract blurs of light, or when he shifts—particularly during Ivan’s despair—from the richly colored canvas into pale black and white. At other times, Paradjanov uses almost completely abstract natural images, the way his friend Tarkovsky used them, to convey the beauty of this strange Ukrainian landscape. Beyond that, as I have suggested, he freezes his camera in front of dancers or celebrating figures dressed in exaggerated costumes. Repetitions, such as the deer’s haunting returns to Mirichka’s grave, and wildly disjunctive cuts abound. Even today, Paradjanov’s camera seems absolutely intoxicated, so it is easy to imagine the effect upon audiences that had been schooled in the staid camera movements of Soviet Realism.

      Without even attempting to express dissident views, Paradjanov’s tale is so bizarrely beautiful and original that it makes almost all other cinema of its time, with the exception of Andrei Tarkovsky, appear to be boring, without significant content. As a director, Paradjanov, drunk with imagination and aestheticizing the world around him, was obviously a dangerous force.

Los Angeles, November 2, 2012

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