The most plastic-fantastic of Soviet new-wave movies, set among the colorful Gutsul people of the remote eastern Carpathians, Sergei Parajanov’s 1964 Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors is ethnographic cinema run wild. This is a folk ballad—a tale of blood feuds, sorcery, and star-crossed love—that’s not so much lyric as lysergic.
Parajanov’s exotic tumult—playing for a week at BAM in a new 35mm print—has a pre-industrial setting and an elemental narrative. A peasant boy quickly loses his elder brother in a logging mishap and then his father in a pointless knife fight. He falls in love with the killer’s daughter and, after years of puppy love, makes her pregnant. She dies in an accident. He marries another and dies in a tavern brawl precipitated by his unfaithful wife’s lover.
Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors was adapted from a novella by the Ukrainian modernist Mikhaylo Koysyubinskiy but, as shot (in a dialect that few Russians would understand) by future filmmaker Yuri Ilyenko, the movie pushes modernism toward madness. The camera spins and pirouettes, the colors shift, perspective dissolves. The visual style is so extreme that, as David A. Cook, the author of a standard text on film history, puts it: “To say that Shadows of Our 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.”
Although sui generis, the filmis not without precursors and analogues. Parajanov studied with the folk-pantheist Alexander Dovzhenko; his delirious staged-documentary method was anticipated by Murnau’s Tabu as well as the 1930s Czech folk-doc The Earth Sings. While the recent Inuit epic The Fast Runner cast a similar spell, the movie that Shadows most closely resembles is Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man—made at virtually the same time, half a world away in the Colorado Rockies.
Parajanov’s impossible camera angles and onrushing camera maneuvers, his use of bold superimpositions, seasonal structure, and pagan mentality, are all akin to Brakhage’s. But Shadows is concerned with collective rather than individual consciousness. In this overwhelmingly beautiful movie, a sad, short, brutalized life is elevated to ecstatic myth.