Kino Lorber: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Dovzhenko Film Studios

Georgian-Armenian born Soviet director Sergei Parajanov is widely considered to be the greatest and most important director of Ukrainian cinema since Oleksandr Dovzhenko under whom he was an understudy alongside Igor Savchenko.  Formerly a director of Russian cinema beginning in 1951 before disowning his preexisting filmography comprised within the confines of ‘socialist realism’, Parajanov wiped the slate clean with a new start in his first film Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors made after moving to Ukraine.  Doing away with socialist realism in favor of magical realism, a propensity for the avant-garde experimental with wild sweeping camerawork by Yuri Ilyenko who himself later became a director, it is considered to be the first major film by Parajanov and remains a renowned, internationally acclaimed classic of Ukrainian magical realism. 

Something of a Romeo and Juliet doomed love affair, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors set in a small Hutsul village in the Carpathian mountains concerns two young Ukrainian Hutsul lovers, Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk) and Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), on opposite sides of a deep rooted conflict.  Despite Ivan’s father’s murder at the hands of Marichka’s father, the young lovebirds fall for one another anyway and plan to marry but not until Ivan ventures outside the village to earn some extra cash towards building a nest egg.  

While away, tragedy strikes and leaves Ivan a broken man unable to move past the loss of his soulmate.  Despite remarrying to Palahna (Tatyana Bestayeva) including but not limited to undergoing a traditional Hutsul wedding with blindfolding and yoking, Ivan slips into madness hallucinating about his lost love Marichka.  Then in a stark departure from the already heightened style and structure of the film, it glides freely into surrealist magical realism where dream and reality are indistinguishable if not dizzying in a kaleidoscopic array of sensorial overwhelming. 

Parajanov became a target for Soviet authorities who disliked the director’s decision to film Ukrainian author Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s 1911 novel of the same name in its native language.  Despite urging him to make a Russian dub, the ordinary practice for Dovzhenko Film Studios even in Ukraine, the director flatly refused.  The filmmaker also planned on casting Russian box-office draw Genadi Yukhtin in the leading role of Ivan, but ultimately went with newcomer Ukrainian actor Ivan Mykolaichuk in the role which sparked a lifelong career as one of Ukrainian cinema’s greatest screen icons.  

Then there’s the use of Ukrainian folk-music composed by Myroslav Skoryk, inspired by Ukrainian Hutsul folk culture, which ranges from haunted to atonal.  All of these elements combined made it an overtly distinct piece of Ukrainian cinema much to the chagrin of the then-USSR which after Parajanov’s subsequent complete feature The Color of Pomegranates arrested and charged the director with the crime of homosexuality and after serving four years he wasn’t allowed to make another film until 1985 with The Legend of Suram Fortress.

While the budget for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors isn’t clearly known for certain, the film has the scale and feel of a super-production with all of the fantasy lore of Aleksandr Ptushko lying ahead but with the unmistakable patina of Ukrainian language, culture and iconography.  A brilliantly edited piece cut with a razor by Marfa Ponomarenko which ranges from extended running long takes to tightly-connected pieces of hyperkinetic imagery, the experience of the film is akin to tumbling down a hill as you see the world spin around you.  Featuring lovely production design by Mikhail Rakovskiy, Georgiy Yakutovich and still-stunningly ornately detailed costume work by Lidiya Bajkova, entering the world of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors as a viewer is fully absorbing as an audiovisual dessert to an already filling Eastern European cinematic meal.
It goes without saying Ivan Mykolaichuk is the defining screen image of the classical medieval Ukrainian hero, going on to roles such as the 1972 Ukrainian tragicomedy The Lost Letter as well as win two Ukrainian top film prizes and a posthumous lifetime achievement award in 1988.  Stern with sharp eyes and a tightly cut moustache, Mykolaichuk is energetic and expressive as well as open to whichever rabbit holes our filmmaker is ready to plunge us down.  

Sadly however, like the director himself, Mykolaichuk came under fire for being in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and was unable to act in film for some five years.  Despite this, Larisa Kadochnikova as Marichka emerged unaffected, albeit in a terrific and bright leading performance.  Also of strong note is Tatyana Bestayeva as Ivan’s unhappy new wife Palahna who goes the full distance in some unexpectedly revealing scenes.
When released in 1965, the film was regarded as of the Soviet Union as opposed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, deliberately turning a blind eye to the film’s plain-as-day Ukrainian bloodstream.  While the theatrical run in Ukraine (in limited release) did well at the box office as well as internationally with favorable American critical reviews, the Ukrainian reception at the time wasn’t used to the film’s overt break from socialist realism.  

Though it was likely instrumental in Parajanov’s eventual incarceration which also likely contributed to his untimely death, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors for its realisateur was a personal expression of what it means to be Ukrainian with a highly stylized emphasis on Earthiness of the Hutsul village and the ongoing almost subliminal use of Ukrainian symbols and iconography.  For Parajanov it was his first real film as a fully engaged audiovisual artist in total command of his medium and a wild array of phantasmagorical cinematic trickery still unparalleled in the annals of Eastern European visual art.

--Andrew Kotwicki