Monday, April 14, 2008

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: a masterful, hallucinatory pageant brimming with sensuality, colour, natural beauty, mustaches

Great myths and folktales endure not on account of their universality—which is beyond question—but on the capacity of our finest storytellers to render them vividly, to renovate them according to changing modes of expression, to bring a personal voice to them, and endow them anew with vivacity. Such stories speak of the business of living in terms that transcend the limits of reason, thus, in 1964’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv), when one man is suddenly driven to slay another, when a tormented, lonesome lover allows himself to be carried writhing down rapids on a spindly raft of lumber, or when that same lover, now physically wounded, scavenges the forest at night hoping to be enveloped by death as a means to finding himself once again in his lover’s embrace, the events feel like the opposite of mere artifice. They resonate as more truthful than what we generally refer to as realism.

But then Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors—the artistic breakthrough of Sergei Parajanov, a Georgian born to Armenian parents who had the decidedly mixed fortune to find himself forging a career within the Soviet film industry—has its finger on the pulse of myth like few other films. The slaying of the man is followed by an enigmatic flash of red horse silhouettes; the lover on the raft captured in a long, unbroken, rapturous camera sweep (which can't help but look forward to numerous like images from Werner Herzog); the search in the forest constructed from close-ups of faces seemingly floating through a web of trees, cheeks brushed by branches with near-palpable sensuality. The tirelessly adventurous camerawork, care of the great Yuri Ilyenko, a writer/director in his own right, is somehow at once delirious and precise, full of low, creeping angles where foliage brushes the lens and breaks up the frame; of careening flights through the collective rituals of Carpathian village life; of scenes that at times resemble some hallucinatory staged anthropological documentary. More than four decades after the fact Shadows still feels vibrantly exotic, a thing set apart, its particular poetry uncorrupted by the rest of the world’s culture of movies.

Shadows, set in the early 19th century, is based on the book by Ukrainian writer Mikhaylo Koysyubinskiy and functions as a carefully detailed window into the daily life of the Hutsuls, the highland people who for centuries have inhabited the Ukraine, as well as the northern extremity of Romania. The film is a sumptuous pageant of traditional costumes, religious rites and iconography, strange, powerful music made with impossibly long trumpets, and a dazzling array of elaborately groomed moustaches. At its narrative centre is an ebullient variation on Romeo and Juliet: Ivan (the deeply haunted Ivan Mikolajchuk) and Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova) grow from a childhood characterized by bloodshed and blissful interaction with nature to an adulthood characterized by harsh weather, hard work, adultery, sorcery, drunkenness and betrayal, all the time concealing a forbidden love that slowly plunges into morbid obsession, though finally proving itself to be even stronger than mortal life.

The man at the helm of all this was reaching the height of his talents and would subsequently feel the wrath of governmental forces bent of punishing such vision as unacceptably decadent. While still young, Parajanov showed great affinity with music and painting, and both mediums heavily inform the sensibility at work in Shadows, which possesses a compelling, lyrical fluidity broken by flutters of striking frozen images, as well as a richness of colour and is heightened by the movement of elements and animals. This dialogue with other mediums is but one of numerous cinematographic ingredients unmistakably mirrored in the contemporaneous films of Andrei Tarkovsky, especially 1962’s Ivan’s Childhood, and it comes as no surprise to discover that Parajanov and Tarkovsky were great, mutually admiring friends who shared similar difficulties with Soviet censorship and even died of the same disease. Like Ivan’s Childhood, Shadows fixates engagingly on horses, water and trees, and its soundtrack seems always to return to a motif of voices calling out names into vast landscapes. Unlike that of Tarkovsky however, Parajanov’s approach is gifted with a willful, buoyant naïveté and effervescent sense of freedom, moving effortlessly between broad symbolism and an uninhibited, textured emotionality.

Though it deals in symbols and mysticism, it needs to be emphasized that Shadows is grounded in feelings and experiences of tremendous immediacy. In the end, Ivan’s story is simply that of a man who even after settling into a potentially happy, normal life with a sexy, loving wife, can’t quite shake off the grips of the one that got away. It’s what distinguishes a film like Shadows from ones we think of as fairy tale flicks, delighting viewers with its folkloric spectacle and archetypical imagery while penetrating those murkier, very adult feelings locked up inside us. Parajanov wasn’t able to make many films during his life, but the legacy of Shadows and its follow-up The Colour of Pomegranates are alone enough to cement his place among the most important filmmakers of cinema’s first century.

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