Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) by • July 10, 2009 • Printer-friendly

The Soviet Union in 1964 was about the last place on earth where anyone could find respect for traditional ways and reverence for ancestors.  For the most part, the thuggish bureaucracy controlling that unlamented establishment exuded an almost eager desire for drabness that was downright studied in its gleeful love of the ugly.  Sir Kenneth Clark, I think it was, once said that to understand a culture, look first at its artifacts.  The only good art worth talking about in Bolshevik lands strenuously defied its prevailing soullessness and silenced many of the best artists, imprisoned them, or both.  The case of Solzhenitsyn and the troubles of Shostakovitch are well-known examples.

No filmmaker from that empire ever surpassed the achievement of the late Serge Parajanov for both startling beauty and for the love of tradition.  Simply showing up the emptiness of life in the USSR by contrasting it with life as it once was before the worker’s paradise was alone enough provocation to result in his receiving two stiff prison sentences. I have thus far only seen the one film that solidified  his reputation, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  Only on the third viewing did I even bother to pay much attention to the story line, which turns out to be a fascinating little tale of love, lost love, and even some sorcery.  I kept thinking of what might have happened  had Romeo survived Juliet.

What matters most is not the tale but the nearly overwhelming beauty of the imagery, as lush as the best Russian iconography.  The fatal mistake often ruining movies that depend on imagery is that, without a good narrative, the so-called experimental films disintegrate because they almost invariably lack an organizing conceptual framework, the visuals becoming merely a series of arbitrary pictures.  Even when a director paints with his camera, he still needs a string for his pearls.  He needs a narrative of some kind.  Here Parajanov delivers, but he reverses the usual dictum in that the story never pushes his visual world into the background.

Set in the Carpathian Mountains of the western Ukraine, he conjures a world of music played on authentic old instruments. Striking costumes, authentic to paintings I have seen of that culture, ancient customs played out in a sensuous world of eye-popping color that makes one happy to be part of creation—these, and many other small details evoke a world that makes the viewer wish he were part of it.  Family traditions, including feuds, play out, but the audience always gets the feeling that the artist responsible is continually clarifying a self-evident point, that these ways are superior to ours.  Perhaps somebody more knowledgeable than I can inform me of the name for a brass instrument several feet long that when played emits sounds reminiscent of a ram’s horn or an untempered French horn.

Ignorant of the language, I can at least sense Parajanov recreating the slow rhythms of country people.  I do understand well its church and its liturgy, and we properly seem to spend half the film either at weddings or at funerals.  Only a believer, or at least someone with a healthy respect for belief in the Orthodox Christianity, could have wrought this work.  Wrought is the right word, because the images are those of a master iconographer at the summit of his powers.

Most people who watch movies, I have long noticed, look first for drama and often only for drama.  We all love a good story.  Nothing wrong with that.  But movies can provide other joys as well.  Sometimes, however, we can limit ourselves by thinking of the story as the most important point.  One glance at Shadows makes clear that we are in the presence of a director who had first been a painter.  He actually did paint many, if not all, of the iconic works on display in the film.

How, then, would a painter as opposed to a dramatist make a film?  The answer is simply this: by creating, or in this case recreating, an habitable visual world with incarnated people in it.  Parajanov ultimately sacrificed much of his own life because he emphasized the essential contrast between Christendom and the shallow slush of Communism. Among the trumped up charges against him, only one was demonstrably true.  He supported Ukrainian nationalism, merely by depicting old Ukrainian life.  For this alone Parajanov should be remembered.  My Jacobite ancestors forbidden their tartans would have understood this movie in a heartbeat.

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