Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv)
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Starring: Ivan Mykolaichuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva
In watching Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors a second time in order to review it, I borrowed the DVD from the local library and wanted to watch it on the big TV in our living room. My husband was in the room as well, so I asked him, “Is it okay if I put on a really weird Soviet movie?” He looked up from his video game and said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” Ten minutes later, he turned to me and said, “You really weren’t kidding, this is weird.”
Alright, “weird” is not exactly the most fitting adjective here, but still, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is hardly typical cinema. The story is about young Ivan (Mykolaichuk as an adult), a boy growing up in a Hutsul village in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine. As a boy, he falls in love with Marichka (Kadochnikova as an adult) despite the fact that her father killed his father. The two grow up together inseparable, but when Marichka dies in an accident, Ivan is grief-stricken. Ultimately he marries Palagna (Bestayeva) but still thinks of Marichka. After not producing any children, Palagna turns to sorcery which causes a rift between her and Ivan.
I can understand why Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is included in 1001 Movies, but it is not a movie I enjoy. So, why is it in 1001 Movies, then? Because first and foremost, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is about the Hutsul tradition. It’s essentially a fictionalized ethnography, for lack of a better term. Part of why I am so committed to not just watching but writing about the 1001 Movies book is because I know it will stretch me outside my comfort zone, and this film is exactly that. The culture and traditions in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are wholly unlike those I am familiar with; the movie has exposed me to a time and place I would otherwise not have known, and that’s important.
There are many cultural traditions on hand here, starting with the simple church service that opens the film, but is full of such colors and sets to feel very different. There are the requisite weddings and funerals, but also the Christmas holidays, simple pub outings, a winter market, and tending to the farm. What makes me prefer the type of cultural education presented in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors to that in a more traditional ethnography is that this is all presented in terms of a fictionalized and fantasized story. We see all these events through the window of wistful nostalgia and mysticism. Parajanov’s manages to weave cultural education together with a fairytale-like atmosphere of images and sounds and feelings. I prefer that Parajanov leaves many ceremonies completely unexplained; I’m still not sure why those villagers were wearing ridiculous masks in one scene, but I don’t think I really care. It was as if I was an impartial observer, simply sitting back and watching this village without knowing the language. What results is a whirlwind of color and dance and costume and sound, and it’s pretty heady.
Additionally, on a personal level, I live in an area with a rather high Ukrainian population. In my classes over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve had several Ukrainian students; last year alone, in a class of only thirteen students, I had a Rostislav, a Petro, and a Vladimir, and they would frequently speak Ukrainian to one another. Heck, sometimes they would go back and forth between Ukrainian and English in the same sentence. (and really, the amusement factor of watching two high school students yelling in Ukrainian at one another because they each think the other botched their chem lab results is pretty damn high… I will always remember Rostislav barking out incomprehensible orders to Petro from across the room.) Because of this fact, I am a bit more interested in discovering Ukrainian traditions now than before I started teaching, if for no other reason than having a better understanding of where my students are coming from. I understand that my students are separated by years from the traditions on display in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, but it is still interesting to discover nonetheless.
Speaking of sound, I rather enjoyed the music in this film. Having played symphonic and large group classical music all my life, Russian and Soviet music always stems from its small town cultural roots. When you listen to Tchaikovsky’s works where he is not writing to please Western European tastes (as in “Capriccio Italien”, for example), there is – obviously – significant Russian undertones and thematic elements. Some of my favorite pieces of classical music are from the Eastern European composers, such as Shostakovich (forever associated with Stalin’s regime, unfortunately), Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky… the list goes on and on. One of my favorite concerts I’ve ever performed with a community band was when we played Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave”, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (yes, all of it), Shostakovich’s “Finale” from Symphony No. 5, and assorted smaller works, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Dance of the Tumblers” and Prokofiev’s “March” from The Love for Three Oranges. It was staggering music, full of such cultural richness and tones, and an absolutely drop dead fantastic concert. The soundtrack in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, all music composed directly for the film, is ripped from that same tradition. It could fit right in beside Rimsky-Korsakov easily. If nothing else, the aural and visual components of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are very striking, and this is why I understand why it makes it into 1001 Movies.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is not exactly a fun watch. It’s not brutal or tortuous, in the way that horrific war films are, and nothing bad really happens, but it’s… trying. Plot is not the point. Subtitles that precede the film call it a “poetic drama.” A visual tone poem, if you will. At only an hour and a half, it’s not too long, but it’s still a bit of a task to sit through it. The pace is decent enough, never really too slow or lingering too long on one thing, but I still struggled to pay attention. In short, there is a great deal to appreciate about Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, but much less to actually like. I wouldn’t exactly recommend this film to anyone who wasn’t going through 1001 Movies, not because I think it’s a crap film, just because I don’t think anyone would really like it.
And ultimately, this is my final opinion of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. I can appreciate it, but I don’t particularly care for it. If I’m looking to watch a Soviet visual tone poem, I’ll reach for Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo or Stalker in a heartbeat over Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The colors and music and cultural richness is fine, maybe even important, but this movie is also the filmic equivalent of being forced to eat my vegetables.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10.