The Armenian film-maker, Sarkis Parad- janov, was by all accounts considered in his early years to be nothing more than a gifted trifler. And then, in the Sixties, he was asked to make an historical film set in the Ukraine, apparently after other direc- tors had turned down the assignment. No doubt the authorities were hoping for something which would be informative and nostalgic in equal measure, a filmic equivalent of the National Geographic magazine which would effectively embalm the local culture by treating it simply as a piece of folk art. Instead, Paradjanov came up with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a most extraordinary — in some ways, wilful- ly extraordinary — film.
It has an intensity which seems to me to be peculiar to Soviet films, an intensity that works on every level so that the film has a curious richness — even stiffness — of tex- ture. Here are brooding interiors, of chur- ches and houses, suffocated in colour and stunned with noise; every surface is painted and every cloth cunningly embroidered. The small rooms are literally crammed with objects, and strange religious images hang from the rafters. Outside, the contrast could not be more intense as lonely figures fight their way through a blank and fea- tureless wilderness, barren except for some coarse bracken and a few thin, starved trees. It is a melodramatic landscape, per- haps, but it adds conviction to what is in any case a wonderfully exaggerated narrative.
The plot itself is a relatively simple one, with the hardness and heartlessness of a peasant fable. A young man, Ivanko, falls in love with a girl. They spend their teenage years together but, soon after their betrothal, she is drowned. lvanko takes to lonely wanderings, until he is seduced by a woman who persuades him to become her husband. But the marriage is a loveless pne, and the wife has her revenge upon him by taking a lover. The lover kills Ivanko in a tavern brawl, and in the final scene of the film Ivanko lies upon a bier while the villa- gers cavort around his body.
It is a strange story, curiously elliptical and reticent, with no moral attached to it and precious little conventional 'meaning' to be derived from Ivanko's tragedy. In fact the theme is altogether less important than the scenes and images which Paradjanov grafts upon it. His pictures are entirely beautiful, sometimes so powerful and unex- pected that they take the breath away: in one episode, the petals of a sunflower obscure the sun, and its stem casts a shadow over the two young children playihg together. On a visual level alone, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is clearly the work of a master and the rapid succession of images produces a quasi-hypnotic ef- fect as the film moves fluently from scene to scene, each one labelled `Loneliness' or `Christmas' or 'The Sorcerer' as in a children's story.
As a result, the camera follows the curve of the emotion rather than the progress of the story. It functions as another eye, swirl- ing in spirals, moving up and down so that it becomes an active, probing agent. In one scene, the lens itself is covered with blood as a body falls beside it. And since the film manages to do without any but the most rudimentary dialogue, nothing gets between the visual image and its effect upon the audience.
There is very little dialogue here prin- cipally because this is not an entirely `dramatic' film concerned with human ac- tions and reactions. Although the story is effective enough within its limits, Parad- janov does not harbour any exaggerated ideas about 'personality' and its expression. (We are not, for example, in the hands of anything like a 'star' system.) In fact there is a peculiar reticence throughout this film in the enactment of human feelings: they are either stylised, or cut so short that they have a sharpness and hardness which preclude any easy 'identification'. When Ivanko's girl is drowned, we do not see her death — simply the details of her face at the precise moment when she realises she is about to fall into the water. Similarly, Ivanko's grief at her death is not lavishly presented: it has to be inferred from his ac- tions. For human characters here are part of a larger landscape — the camera looms below or behind them, so that they become as elongated as the birch trees, as misty as the rain.
It is an extension of this sense of life in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors that human beings are not seen in isolation but rather in terms of the human and natural communities in which they must play their part. Paradjanov has, for example, created a convincing portrait of Carpathian life in the mid-19th century. Here is a community concerned with the claims of lineage and the workings of God's will, constricted and at the same time formed by traditional rituals and customs. Really, one might have stepped into the Museum of Mankind, so faithful does Paradjanov's rendering of such life seem, if it were not for the quite natural fluency and vitality of his direction. Everything in this film is exaggerated, theatrical almost, but it is the exaggeration of a super-abundant creativity. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors creates a bewilder- ing, haunting world which has the oddness and intensity of a dream, filled with harsh cries and strange music. It owes very little to the Soviet tradition of social realism, and manages within its compass to include musical comedy, melodrama, romantic tragedy and domestic farce. As such, it is the work of a confident and powerful im- agination which saw in the past an oPPot" tunity to create an alternative world — rather, something out of the world, quite distinct from the culture in which Parad- janov was forced to operate. It is perhaps not surprising that he is now in a Soviet prison for crimes against the state.