Wednesday 20 March 2013

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

I was looking at my blog's stats a few weeks ago, and learnt that the top five nations (in numbers of people looking at the blog, rather than in inherent merit) were the UK, US, Germany, Poland and the Ukraine.  I've looked at loads of films for the first three, one for Poland (with more on the way), but had nothing down in Ukrainian at all.  I knew this needed to be amended, for the sake of my ten Ukrainian readers (or my one very persistent reader in Ukraine, who may or may not be Ukrainian).  Amazon furnished me with a few suggestions, and I liked the cover and title of this one best.  The cover picture showed some magnificent moustaches which, I was sad to discover, are false in the story and used in only one scene.  In all non-moustache-related ways, however, I believe I chose the right film.

Ivanko drinks from the river.  We are a riverbed.

I wasn't really sure what to expect of 'Тіні забутих предків'.  What I got seemed strikingly unusual, at least to me.  I suspect it's just that this is far more Eastern than I'm used to.  Ukraine is in Europe but is as close to Iran as it is to Britain, and the director Sergei Parajanov hails from nearby Armenia (nearby in the same sense that Sheffield is near Münster), and it's Parajanov's direction that makes the film so pleasingly irregular.

The story starts with a tree falling on the main character's brother.  We get this shot from the point of view of the tree, and this unpredictable motion and imagination runs all the way through.  Rather than cutting between shots, the camera prefers to lurch around, casting shadows where it will, and the camera-operator at one point audibly taking a run-up over gravel.  Cameras vault over huts, and shots are taken from under water.  Characters, incidents and instruments are only audible, and only really present, from the moment they enter the frame.  Everything is red and gold, with the Carpathian mountains often rendering the frame behind the characters totally white, like 'Tintin in Tibet'.  Bells sound loudly through much of the action, and if ever they stop, men enter the frame and blow a hullabaloo on extremely long trumpets, after which the bells start again.  Under soviet rule, Ukraine had a 'house style' of directing, and this film was so far outside of it as to cause a great deal of trouble between the director and the authorities.

This is the screenshot absolutely everybody uses to represent this film
So I was inclined to avoid it.  It crept in eventually because I don't
like to represent any film enturely with screenshots of males.
It may sound like tokenism, but hey, tokenism has many merits,
and it's a pretty interesting screen-shot.  Of a wedding, by the by.

The brother's tree-accident is the first of several deaths, all sudden, without foreshadowing or any sense of justice.  All are mourned loudly, then forgotten entirely, which is, I suppose, the point of the title.  The film looks set to be a romance, but Marichka's death (in a sheep-related incident) curtails that plot-line very suddenly indeed.  She gets a less festive, more personal mourning than the men: Ivan (the main character) drops out of society, loses his mojo and grows a beard, and everything is in monochrome for a good twenty minutes.  Everything except Easter, of course, as you can't do a Russian Orthodox Easter in anything less than full colour.

I don't quite know how to interpret the last of the film's deaths.  I hardly think of this as a spoiler, by the way, as the movie is more a sensation than a narrative.  After an unsatisfactory life of farming, Ivan is struck on the head by some kind of sorcerer, and suddenly he's in slow motion and the picture broken down into white, red and yellow.  He stumbles out into the forest, where something happens.  Either we see the beautiful romantic reunion of the souls of true lovers, or else we're given something far more horrible and nightmarish.  Marichka is there, moving toward him, as alive as ever she was, but her hands are as grey as death, or even greyer.  Ivan and Marichka finally clasp hands, and the forest is suddenly coated in blood, and spinning.

Some blood, yesterday.

We resolve to still shots of bloody twisted branches, presented without further comment, just as we had earlier been treated to a succession of still shots of moss and bits of wood.  And just when we're getting into Peter Greenaway territory, we jump back to the world of people, everybody having a great time at the funeral, and the movie ends.

It's a curious film, and not really what I expected.  The cover had suggested something more historical, more adventurous.  The film I saw seemed at times like a realistic depiction of the hardness of a 19th century cattle-herder's life - like classic western 'Will Penny' (1968) - and at times like a Grimm fairy tale.  Certainly one to re-watch  I think, for the sound and pictures more than for the characters.

P.S. I guess 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925) was kinda set in Ukraine, but the intertitles were in Russian, so let's say it doesn't count.

P.P.S. Poland is next door to the Ukraine, and having watched this film, 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977) suddenly makes much more sense - or, I should say, it has a bit more context, but still makes little sense and remains cold, unappealing and frightening.

P.P.P.S. These days nobody in Ukraine looks at the blog any more, and Malaysia has taken its place as the country I'm rudely neglecting.  Can anyone recommend me a decent Malay film?

If you want it, the film can be had from Amazon.  I'm aware that I'm the only person who's ever ordered through this blog, but I still think it worth putting these things down here in case you ever read about something exciting and decide to scratch the itch with mammon.

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