Wednesday, 5 June 2013

1,001 Films: "Shadows Of Our Forgotten Ancestors" (1964)

In all my adventures in world cinema, Sergei Paradjanov has been the most extraordinary discovery, and the director whose work requires the most explanation, the most context, lest it merely be reduced to a series of ravishing, exotic images. Shadows Of Our Forgotten Ancestors, the first of Paradjanov's films to reach Western audiences, takes as its pith the ancient legends and folklore of the snowy Carpathian region, yet shoots these tales in the manner of, say, Help! or A Hard Day's Night, all hand-held, charging camera and sped-up action, as though the characters it comes across were rockstars rather than more than faintly obscure national icons. As with Paradjanov's subsequent The Colour of Pomegranates, a template is being laid down for any number of modern pop videos: this was an imagemaker who knew how to make history newly youthful, vibrant, alive.

At its centre are Ivan and Marichka, childhood sweethearts possibly equivalent to the Devdas and Paro of Eastern lore. In their younger days, these two frolicked in Edenic woodland - there's a lot of berry-picking - but their relationship gets markedly tougher once Ivan is sent out into the world to earn his keep: there are fewer fruits of the forest, for one, and separated lovers can only stare at the same set of stars for so long. Soon they've lost all contact, leaving Ivan whirling round in a state of independence, nostalgia and confusion, and susceptible to more malign influences.

Even if we don't quite twig precisely what's going on from here on out, it would be impossible not to pick up on the energy and vast exhilaration Paradjanov puts into bringing even a flavour of this story, this culture, to the screen; his film has a freedom in its veins that you could very well imagine a straight-laced, desk-bound apparatchik taking firmly against. On display throughout is a proto-Herzogian view of nature: enormous rafts lashed together from logs, the tallest trees ever put on screen. Yet the symbolism adorning each scene like those ripening berries - the nailing of a horseshoe onto a mare, the pulling of a stone from a crotch-mounted holster, the better to keep the blade of one's scythe sharp - is lusty and earthy: unlike anything else going on in the cinema, East or West, at this time, and - for all one might stretch and reach to contextualise it - like very little else made since.

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.

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