Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors

Imagine that you are in the midst of culture that is not going to exist anymore 20 years from now. You want to preserve its memories for the future. How would you do it? You could write a story about it, or you could record its songs, or you could take some of its objects of daily use – costumes, cooking pots, tools, and so on – and keep them safe. Or perhaps, you could learn its dance or photograph its architecture, and the natural surroundings in which it exists.

Or, you could make a film out of it which captures all these elements together, where music, dance, costume, rituals, dreams and reality all blend together to create a vision of this culture. This is what the Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov does in his classic Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964).

From the very first frame, we know that Parajanov has a story but his film is much more than merely telling this story. It is a visual ­tour de force of the culture of the Hutsul people who lived in the Carpathian mountains of central Europe, as it existed before globalization took over.


Ivan is a small boy whose father is murdered in a fight and who, unknowingly, ends up befriending the murderer’s daughter Marichka. Ivan and Marichka grow up together, playing in the gorgeous mountains and forests of the Carpathian area, and eventually fall in love with each other. But, when Ivan is away from the village for work, Marichka dies, slipping off a high mountainous path. When Ivan comes back, he loses himself in his sorrow, becoming a pale shadow of his earlier, youthful self. At this time, another young girl, Palagna befriends him and the two get married. However, Ivan remains lost in his thoughts for Marichka. Unfulfilled by her mourning husband, Palagna has an affair with a sorcerer who casts a fatal spell on Ivan. Eventually, Ivan dies, hallucinating about Marichka’s spirit embracing him in his last moments, in the beautiful, tree-filled valleys of the Carpathian mountains.

The story provides ample opportunity to display the life of the Hutsuls – their births, deaths, marriages, church life, and festivals. The camera runs, shakes, and swerves, so that the energy and dynamism of the people being shot is not just seen on screen, but felt in a visceral way, as the frame of the screen moves restlessly, as if on the first seat of a roller coaster. There are few moments in Shadows… where there isn’t a song, or a dance, or a tradition lute playing in the background. The unique dresses, jewelry and household objects of these people are creations of a colourful craftsmanship that is not yet sidelined by the mass production of the industrial age. The lush green mountains and the thick forests surrounding their habitat are photographed joyously, demonstrating both the awesome beauty and the indifferent dangers of nature.

Ivan and Palagna’s wedding

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors is what no other art except cinema can be. While other arts may focus on one element of a culture, Shadows… portrays song, dance, nature, costume, and ritual simultaneously, giving life to a culture that in reality, exists only in the past. It is a frenzied, dramatic and intense portrait of a culture.

Yet, in all its visual and aural force, the film lacks a depth dimension. The inner worlds of the characters, and of the culture as a collective whole, are far less apparent in the midst of all this ebullience of sounds, colours and costumes. Shadows… leaves us feeling as if we witnessed a fascinating exhibit of exotic objects that we shall forget soon after we walk out of it.

The most striking feature of Parajanov’s film is that it captures the particular potentiality of film as a visual document, rather than as a narration of a story. In doing so, it ravishes, stuns, and strikes us with its audacious energy, but also leaves us thirsting for something more deeply affecting.

Sergei Parajanov

~ by tdcatss on August 5, 2012.

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