Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors has often been described as a Carpathian Romeo and Juliet – that is, if Romeo had the tenacity to live after his beloved’s death. Sergei Paradjanov prefaces the tragic tale set in the Carpathian mountains as the land “forgotten by God and men”, and from the austerity of the environment, it is evident that survival comes at a high price. In essence, the story is incidental to the observations of daily peasant life: the Orthodox order of mass, the rites of spring, the rhythm of the sickle cutting the fields. A young man, Ivan (Ivan Nikolaichuk), falls in love with Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), the daughter of the man who killed his father. As his mother’s only surviving child, he leaves the village to work as a hired laborer to provide for her. However, before he can return to Marichka, she falls to her death in an attempt to rescue an errant lamb. The story then follows Ivan through his descent into despair, marriage to the sensual Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), and Palagna’s inevitable betrayal.
Paradjanov’s startling camerawork is mesmerizing, richly symbolic, and highly original. The tall, thin trees (shot upward), strips of cloth drying in the field, and Ivan’s raft create an exaggerated linearity, a sense of continuity, that provides a paradox to the brevity of their existence, and also symbolizes the eternity of true love. Furthermore, the pervasive religious images in the film: Marichka’s crucifix, the lamb grazing at a cross grave marker, Marichka’s apparition against the window crossbrace, and The Pieta epilogue, are transfigurations of the purity of love. The color composition is bizarre and unnatural: pale, washed, glacial, almost monochromatic hues, infused with jarring touches of red and yellow (note the saturation of red at scene changes). The odd color palette suggests emotional incongruence – a love that cannot materialize – an unrequited passion. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a visionary film, an homage to the dignity of human struggle, and a testament to the inexorable power of destiny.
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