Double Take: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965)

Marishka had a little lamb, and everywhere that Ivan went Marishka seemed to go. This week's Double Take tries to untangle Sergei Parajanov's Soviet masterpiece of color, culture, and calamity.
1967-03-16 (New York)

In Sergei Parajanov’s bleak, fatalistic tale, the window of grace provided for children to be children in post-war Russia is always too brief.

Steve Leftridge: Wild Horses of Fire! Where do we start with a film so stuffed with narrative, cultural, symbolic, and medulla-oblongata-curving technique? Perhaps we should start with a reminder that director Sergei Parajanov, a giant of Soviet cinema, did some serious time in labor camps for making Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors — and other pictures like it — due to his subversion of the old Soviet Union’s mandate that all art should fit neatly into the category of socialist realism. (This imprisonment happened despite worldwide protests from other filmmakers.) Once the ‘80s and Glasnost rolled around, Parajanov was free, but he didn’t live much longer, broken as he was by a lifetime of persecution. Now, however, he’s honored with statues and his own museum in Russia. They even named an asteroid after him.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is the film that made him famous. As fascinated as I am by Parajanov’s use of the camera, his manipulation of color, his depiction of the culture of the Ukrainian Hutsul people living high in the frozen Carpathian terrain, and his mesmerizing use of symbolic imagery, I found myself afterwards thinking mostly about Ivan himself, whose story from childhood to death plays out in 90 minutes. His story is certainly a tragic one, and I’ll put the question to you, Mr. Pick: Can you lay the blame for Ivan’s sad life on a specific tragic flaw on his part, or is Parajanov telling us that overwhelming loss and grief are simply the inevitable lot of the living?

Steve Pick: I’m not sure that Ivan has a tragic flaw other than being born Russian, which in my reading of literature and viewing of films has rarely, if ever, led to a happy fate. My first thought is perhaps a stretch: Parajanov was bisexual, which led me to wonder if Marishka is meant to be a stand-in for an unattainable love of his own. That reading would account for his unwillingness to have sex with Palagna, the woman he actually does marry. Of course, I’m not suggesting bisexuals are secretly gay — far from it — but I suspect the average went up in countries where one was actually imprisoned for homosexual acts, as Parajanov was.

At any rate, the first scene in the film shows the death of Ivan’s brother. Then, there is more death at the funeral, with that remarkable splash of red directly on the camera lens. There is also that scene in which Ivan’s mother mentions all of her departed children. I mean departed as in dead; Ivan is her only child to have merely left her for another village. Marishka’s death in the act of saving a lost black sheep is another random visit from the Grim Reaper.

After their meet-cute at Ivan’s brother’s funeral, when Ivan slaps her in the face, and long after their childhood skinny dipping scene, Marishka and Ivan have happy times of romping in fields. In this scene, Marishka asks Ivan if they will be married, and he answers, “If God wills it”. As it happens, I’m reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and that phrase turns up a couple times there, which makes me wonder if it isn’t some Russian idiom that reflects the bleakness of that land and that time. If God or Fate is the architect of Ivan’s life, the resulting structure is a bit tilted towards the dark side of the street.

Leftridge: Yes, the axe swings without much mercy here. Although Marishka takes her fateful dive relatively early in the film, our Romeo and Juliet tale doesn’t end there: Ivan never gets over Marishka, who haunts him for the rest of his life. Your theory on Parajanov’s and Ivan’s possible bisexuality is a connection I didn’t make, but I just think Ivan is psychologically destroyed by Marishka’s death. We see him writhing in agony on the river raft in that killer crane shot as he passes beneath the camera. Ivan’s world turns black and white, literally, as Parajanov removes the rich color from the first part of the film while Ivan lifelessly moves on after Marishka. Even though he and Palagna share an erogenous moment while shoeing a horse — and who wouldn’t? — he denies her sex, leaving her panting by the haystack. He also ignores her at Christmas dinner, seeing Marishka’s apparition in the window instead.

There is only so much loss a fellow can take. First, his older brother is crushed by a tree (another crafty crane shot); then his father is murdered at his brother’s funeral (by Marishka’s father); then, to cap it off, Marishka shepherds herself into the river. The strange star in the sky that purported to connect them ended up being just another dirty trick of Fate. Speaking of which, what do you make of Parajanov’s copious use of such ritual symbology?

Pick: Just to clarify, I was never thinking Ivan is bisexual. It’s just that I thought it possible Parajanov could easily relate to somebody who could never hold on to the true love he wanted, and who might just resent the woman who took its place. As for the ritualism, of course, neither you nor I is likely to be overly familiar with village life in the Ukrainian Carpathians in the time well before the Russian Revolution, so many of the nuances of particular rituals (religious and secular) probably went right over our heads. I found them fascinating nonetheless, especially those in the church, during the early and late funeral scenes, and the ones in the village for the feast where Palagna openly “flirts” with another man. I guess I should also mention the whole Christmas sequence, too, and Palagna’s dabbling in witchcraft to help get pregnant, which seems to have been an excuse to run around in the countryside stark naked alongside some perfectly situated wooden slat fences. In addition, there is the music of the film, almost entirely in folk idioms I’ve never encountered before, which is compelling on its own. Add in the sound of the characters’ names, and I think I could have thoroughly enjoyed the experience with my eyes closed, even though that would have meant missing out on some thoroughly exhilarating images and moving camera work. I do mean moving in both the sense that the camera rarely holds still and in the sense that what is shown is emotionally resonant.

Leftridge: Hey, speak for yourself. My own wedding was a full-blown Hutsul ceremony, complete with the yoke and blindfolds.

But, okay, yes, some of the culture and the Orthodox practices were new to me, which I agree is a big part of the film’s allure. For example, that sweet little side-by-side legs-only jig the villagers perform is fun to watch, although I will admit that the cacophony of the trembitas and flutes and Jew’s harps had me clawing at the window for air a time or two. Regarding the film’s spirituality, the narrative’s mystical and metaphysical properties serve to heighten the emotional wallop of the characters’ desperate searches for contentment and allow for some of the film’s most striking symbolic turns. The running horses of death! The invisible woodcutter of regret! The flaming tree of sexual passion! That’s some potent sorcerer sex when a tree explodes.

Pick: One man’s cacophony is another man’s delirious sonic delight, I guess. Actually, though, the music was either mostly beautifully harmonic or rooted in an extremely small scale of notes. Either way, I was entranced.

I want to look more closely at the Christmas Day sequence, beginning with that remarkably tender scene of Ivan feeding the farm animals, first mooing to the cows, then “baaing” to the sheep, and then the especially sweet way he snorts like a horse. After this, he invites all the sorcerers and magicians to come and eat, then tells them to vanish, never to return. Ivan and Palagna say their Christmas prayer together, with Ivan pointedly asking God to look after those who have drowned in deep waters. The extreme close-ups of Ivan and Palagna here, as they stare straight ahead side by side, reveal the anguish that these two don’t want to share with each other. Their meal starts off with Palagna being proud of the food she has cooked, but just watch her face as Ivan starts to take more drinks than bites. Every bit of hope she had for her marriage is drained, one small action at a time.

Suddenly, a group of children with angel wings appears at the door to sing and dance in a particularly charming manner. Ivan smiles and joins them, then turns to his wife and barks, “Palagna, where’s my child?” — as if it’s her fault he won’t have sex with her. By this time, Ivan is very drunk, and he takes several layers of clothing off with her wordless aid, and collapses on the bed, only to see Marishka’s face, beautifully cut by the wooden slats forming a cross, in the window where he had left more food and drink. He sits up, wide-eyed, and says, “She’s come”. Palagna, sitting by the window with her dress hiked up to reveal her legs, stone-facedly intones “There’s no-one there. Go to sleep”, and covers the window with a piece of her own clothing. “Such was life, dull workdays, and sorcery on holidays”.

The whole film is filled with scenes this richly drawn, but this one particularly stands out for me because it shows the desperation in both Ivan and Palagna, yet it also contains moments of pleasure for each. Ivan is so gentle with the animals and so joyous with the children; Palagna is so eager to share the food she has prepared and so determined to overcome his obvious sorrow from his past. The next sequence is the one when she goes out for a nude romp to ask the devil for a child, and shortly after that she is on the lap of another man at a village party.

Prior to this, there are indications that she and Ivan did have sex; perhaps if a child had come, things would have been different. Or perhaps Ivan really couldn’t love anyone other than Marishka. In this film, though, things change quickly all the time: trees fall, insults lead to death, rocks are suddenly not firm footholds, and colors return after horses are shod. Watching it, we are never sure where Parajanov will take us; in retrospect, it all seems perfectly determined to lead up to Ivan’s death.

Leftridge: I love your close, careful reading of one of cinema’s most miserable Christmas dinners. It appears that Ivan and Palagna do get it on at least once, on their wedding night when Ivan rips her beaded necklace off. In his hand, the beads resemble the red berries that he handed to Marishka earlier in the film, when they too were engaging in a pre-coital ritual.

I feel sorry for Ivan, of course, who was a little boy when his grace period of youth was disrupted by random, violent death everywhere he turned. When Marishka died, that window of grace for Ivan slammed shut for good. It’s Palagna, though, who also deserves pity. She’s adoring, beautiful, amorous, but married to a man who can’t love her. It’s heartbreaking when she prays for Ivan to love her and to give her a child (“a boy or a girl”). So I’m happy for her when she becomes the source of Yurko’s obsession. When she cools Yurko’s jets after he drives the wild storm-horses away, she finally experiences sexual fulfillment after being serially rejected by her husband. Who can blame her for cozying up to Yurko in the tavern? Unlike Ivan, Yurko is nice to her. He lets her smoke his pipe!

So we have a ghost story of sorts. Ivan wanders into the woods after being wounded by Yurko’s axe blow, thereby repeating the fate of his own father. In the forest, he stumbles into the incinerated tree stumps of his soul. He sees Marishka’s apparition, upon which the two of them offer devastating proclamations of grief to the other (“I think of you seven times an hour”). While things are looking up for Palagna and her saucy sorcerer, Parajanov refuses Ivan any kind of hope in reclaiming Marishka, even in the next life. “Oh, we’ll never be together,” he gasps, and just as her ashen image reaches out for him, he dies alone among the red trees.

Finally, after the rush of the film’s inspired camera movement — those dizzying swish pans during the engagement procession, the negative-image freezes of the horses during the storm — we end on the simple, still image of a group of children watching Ivan’s funeral ceremony through a window. Perhaps this is that window of grace again, which has not yet closed for these smiling children, whose lives are just beginning, even as Ivan joins all the other forgotten ancestors.

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