Teni Zabytykh Predkov - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors)

USSR, 1964

Director: Sergei Paradzhanov

Production: Dovzhenko Studios (Kiev); Magicolor, 35mm; running time: variously noted as 100 minutes, 98 minutes and 95 minutes. Released 1964, USSR. Filmed on location among the Gutsuls in the Carpathians.

Screenplay: Sergei Paradzhanov and Ivan Chendei, inspired by the novelette Wild Horses of Fire by M. Kotsiubinsky, and by western Ukrainian folklore; photography: Yuri Ilyenko; editor: M. Ponomarenko; sound: S. Sergienko; art directors: M. Rakovsky and G. Yakutovich; music: M. Skorik.

Cast: Ivan Nikolaichuk ( Ivan ); Larissa Kadochnikova ( Marichka ); Tatiana Bestaeva ( Palagna ); Spartak Bagashvili ( Yurko the Sorcerer ); several Gutsul natives.



Gaby, H., and others, Serge Paradjanov , Lausanne, 1977.

Liehm, Mira, and Antonin Liehm, The Most Important Art: East European Film After 1945 , Berkeley, 1977.

Cazals, Patrick, Serguei Paradjanov , Paris, 1993.

Korohods'skyi, R.M., Serhii Paradzhanov: zlet, trahediia, vichnist' , KyĂŻv, 1994.


Seeyle, John, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1966.

Filmfacts (New York), no. 10, 1967.

International Film Guide (London), 1967.

Paradjanov, S., in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1968.

Gow, Gordon, in Films and Filming (London), June 1969.

Nemes, K., in Filmkultura (Budapest), September-October 1974.

Delmas, J., in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), September-October 1975.

Marshall, Herbert, "The Case of Sergei Paradjanov," in Sight and Sound (London), no. 1, 1975.

Liehm, Antonin, "A Certain Cowardice," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1975.

Delmas, J., in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), September-October 1975.

Treilhou, M. C., in Cinéma (Paris), September-October 1975.

Potrel-Dorget, M. L., in Image et Son (Paris), May 1978.

Cook, D. A., " Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors : Film as Religious Art," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Spring-Summer 1984.

Barsky, V., "Uber Sergej Paradschanow und seine Filme: Im Schatten von vergessenen Ahnen," in Filmfaust (Frankfurt), October-November 1985.

Kroll, Jack, "The Pas De Perestroika: A New Generation of Soviet Artists Try to Undo the Damage of Half Century of Stalinist Repression and Socialist Realism," in Newsweek , vol. 110, no. 24, 14 December 1987.

Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), no. 11, 1989.

Payne, R., "The Storm of the Eye: Culture, Spectacle, Paradzhanov," in Spectator (Los Angeles), vol. 10, no. 1, 1989.

Cook, D.A., "Making Sense," in Film Criticism (Meadville), vol. 17, no. 2–3, Winter-Spring 1993.

Nebesio, Bohdan Y., "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: Storytelling in the Novel and the Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 22, no. 1, January 1994.

Holden, Stephen, in The New York Times , vol. 145, C8, 10 November 1995.

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Sergei Paradzhanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors first appeared in the West in 1965; it won 16 foreign festival awards and was released in the United States and Europe to critical acclaim. Not since the triumph of Potemkin , in fact, had a Soviet motion picture enjoyed such international esteem. At home, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was variously accused of "formalism" and "Ukrainian nationalism," and it was deliberately underbooked in domestic theaters by Sovkino officials. Paradzhanov found himself personally attacked by the Party Secretary for Ideological Problems, and he was consistently denied permission to travel abroad. During the next ten years, Paradzhanov went on to write ten complete scenarios based on classical Russian literature and folk epics, all of which were refused by Soviet authorities, and to make one more film— Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) —which was banned on its release in 1969 and finally given limited distribution in a version "re-edited" by Sergei Yutkevitch in the early 1970s. In January 1974, Paradzhanov was arrested and charged with a variety of offences, including homosexual rape, the spreading of venereal disease, and the illegal sale of icons. Although only the charges of trafficking in art objects stuck, Paradzhanov was sentenced to six years hard labor in Gulag. An international petition campaign forced the Soviets to release him in late 1977, but he has not been allowed to work in the film industry since then. Recently, Paradzhanov told a friend: "I am already a dead man. I can no longer live without creating. In prison my life had direction; there was a reality to surmount. My present life is worse than death." The question poses itself: What was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors to have provoked such admiration, controversy and, finally, misery for its maker? How coul the unique sensibility mirrored in this richly poetic film have been perceived by the Soviet bureaucracy as a political threat at all?

Adapted by Paradzhanov and Ivan Chendei from a pre-Revolutionary novelette by the distinguished Ukrainian writer M. Kotsiubinsky to celebrate the centennial of his birth, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors retells an ancient Carpathian folk legend of universal resonance.

Deep in the Carpathian mountains, at the farthest western reach of the Ukraine, live the Gutsuls, a proud peasant race cut off from the rest of the world by natural boundaries. They are impulsive, fierce, and— though nominally Christian—deeply superstitious and tied to pagan ways. The story begins in the childhood of the two future lovers, when the boy Ivan's father is killed in a fit of anger by the girl Marichka's father, initiating a blood-feud between the two families. But even as children Ivan and Marichka are drawn to each other by strong spiritual attraction. Later, when they are youths, the attraction becomes physical as well, and Ivan impregnates Marichka shortly before he must leave to work as a bondsman for a group of shepherds on the opposite mountain. (Ivan is the sole support of his aged and impoverished mother; Marichka's family is relatively wealthy—the source of the original dispute between the fathers.) As they part, the two lovers agree that every night before Ivan returns they will gaze at the north star to commemorate their love. One night Marichka is drawn out by the star, through the woods, to a bluff above the river. There, attempting to rescue a lost lamb (which is symbolically linked to her love for Ivan), she plunges into the river and drowns. Instinctively realizing that something is wrong, Ivan rushes to the river gorge and floats downstream on a logging barge to discover her body washed up on the shore.

After Marichka's death, Ivan goes through a long period of numbing grief and desolate wandering. Finally, however, he is able to experience love for another woman, Palagna, who eventually becomes his wife. But their marriage proves joyless and barren, for Ivan finds Palagna's carnality degrading compared to the purity of his lost love. More and more, he can think only of the dead Marichka, and finally he begins to look toward death himself. Palagna, scorned, contracts an affair with the local sorcerer who promises to make her fertile with his magic. One night, the sorcerer goads Ivan into a fight in the local tavern and cleaves his skull with an ax (the same mode of death as Ivan's father). Ivan stumbles deliriously through the woods to the river where Marichka drowned, and in a vision she appears to him. They embrace and Ivan dies. Then, like his father before him, his corpse is laid out, and the men, women, and children of the village observe their ancient ritual of death.

At the level of plot, then, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors offers a relatively familiar tale of undying love which has variants in cultures all over the world. But in the telling of that tale, Paradzhanov has created a vision of human experience so radical and unique as to subvert all authority. To say that Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors violates every narrative code and representational system known to the cinema is an understatement—at times, in fact, the film seems intent upon deconstructing the very process of representation itself. The relationship between narrative logic and cinematic space— between point of view inside and outside the frame—is so consistently undermined that most critics on first viewing literally cannot describe what they've seen. Adjectives frequently used to characterize Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are "hallucinatory," "intoxicating," and "delirious"—terms that imply, however positively, confusion and incoherence. But the camera and editing techniques which elicit such comments are all part of Paradzhanov's deliberate aesthetic strategy to interrogate a whole set of historically evolved assumptions about the nature of cinematic space and the relationship which exists between the spectator and the screen.

Paradzhanov proceeds by means of perceptual dislocation, so that it becomes impossible at any given moment to imagine a stable time-space continuum for the dramatic action. Often, for example, the viewer will be invited by conventional stylistic means to share a point of view which is suddenly ruptured by camera movement or some other disjunction in spatial logic; spaces which appear to be contiguous in one shot sequence are revealed to be miles apart in the next; at other times, the camera assumes perspectives and executes manoeuvres which appear to be physically , as well as dramatically, impossible: the camera looks down from the top of a falling tree perhaps 100 feet tall; it looks up through a pool, with no optical distortion, as Ivan drinks from its surface; it whirls 360 degrees on its axis for nearly a full minute, dissolving focus and colour to abstraction; it turns corners and swoops down embankments with inhuman celerity. Finally, Paradzhanov and his cinematographer, Yuri Ilyenko, use a variety of lenses, including telephoto zoom and 180-degree wide-angle, or "fish-eye," to wrap the film's scenographic space to the outer limits of narrative comprehension. The point of these techniques is not to confuse the spectator but to prevent him from constructing in his head the kind of comfortable, familiar, and logically continuous representational space associated with traditional narrative form. The reason is simply that the film posits a world which is neither comfortable, familiar, nor logically continuous, for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors exists most fully not in the realm of narrative but of myth and the unconscious.

It is above all else a deeply psychological film, rich in both Freudian and Jungian imagery. Ivan's yearning after the dead Marichka is imaged in many ways as a positive desire to merge with the anima and become psychologically whole. But it is also imaged darkly as a plunging descent into a Hades-like chasm containing the river where Marichka drowned, as a terrible, desperate craving to return to womb of the mother with whom Ivan has lived in a figurally Oedipal relationship since his father's death as a child—that mother who disappears from the film inexplicably and without comment at the very moment that Marichka drowns.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors 's psychological subtlety extends to its use of sound and color. It has been frequently noted that the film has an operatic, pageant-like quality; and Paradzhanov uses a complex variety of music—from atonal electronics, to lush orchestral romanticism, to hieratic religious chants, to vocal and instrumental folk music—to create leitmotifs for the various psychological elements in his film. For example, the dark side of the Ivan-Marichka union is first announced at their moment of sexual awakening as children (after they have just bathed in the river where Marichka will drown) by a disturbingly atonal violin piece which rises to a crescendo as the intensity of their longing mounts. This theme re-appears on the soundtrack whenever Paradzhanov wishes to summon forth the psychologically disruptive linkage between sex and death which underlies their relationship (as it underlied the human psyche). Similarly, the bright, innocent, psychologically integral side of their love is celebrated by a joyful folk song, sung both by and about them, not only while Marichka lives, but also, for example, at that moment later in the film when Ivan casts down his grief and becomes for a while at least, reconciled to her death. For the most part, however, Paradzhanov's use of sound is as anti-traditional as his use of the cinematography and editing. Characteristically, Ivan's grief-stricken wanderings after Marichka's death are accompanied not by music but by the off-screen gossip of neighbors commenting on his decline. And Paradzhanov manipulates his sound track in other ways, creating certain effects for symbolic purposes (such as the sound of the "invisible ax" hacking away off-screen which appears at fateful cruxes in Ivan's life).

Paradzhanov spoke of having created for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors a "dramaturgy of color," and this element of film composition too is used in a psychologically provocative way. When Ivan and Marichka are first drawn together by their fathers" violence, the prevailing color of the film is the white of the snow, corresponding to their innocence (although its opposite is prefigured by the blood of Ivan's father running down the lens at the moment of his death); the green of spring dominates their young love; monochrome and sepia tones are used to drain the world of color during the period of Ivan's grieving; but color returns riotously, if briefly, after he meets Palagna; as that relationship turns barren, the film is dominated by autumnal hues; monochrome returns during Ivan's death delirium; and at the moment of his death the natural universe is painted in surreal shades of red and blue. Less noticed are the nearly subliminal fades to white and red which connect all the major sequences and the use of fades generally to isolate symbolic detail or create symbolic association.

The effect of both the soundtrack and the color system, like that of the film's optical distortions and dislocations, is to destabilize the spectator perceptually, and therefore psychologically, in order to present a tale that operates not at the level of narrative but of myth: youth passes from innocence to experience to solitude and death in a recurring cycle, eons upon eons. This is the "shadow" of "forgotten ancestors," the archetypal pattern that outlasts and transcends all individual identity. Now the disconcerting violations of point of view through dizzying camera movement and impossible camera angles acquire new significance. For to annihilate individual point of view is to suggest a collective one, and the "impossible" perspectives of the film are only so to humans. From the beginning of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors through its final frames, Paradzhanov has forced the viewer to ask himself at every turn a single question: Through whose eyes do I see? From the top of a tree, from the bottom of a pond, from the center of a violent 360-degree rotation—through whose eyes? There can only be one answer: We see this film through the eyes of something that is greater and older than all of humankind, that is everywhere at once, that discerns what things are and simultaneously what they are not. Paradzhanov may have dabbled in political dissent and been too outspoken in his criticism of officialdom, but the Soviet bureaucrats silenced him because Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an extraordinary testament to the powers of film as religious art, and its maker was a poet of God.

—David Cook

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