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Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

May 31, 2013

Some time ago I posted about Sergei Paradjanov’s (1968) film The Color of Pomegranates (aka Sayat Nova). More recently I watched his earlier movie (1965) Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which, though not quite as strange and innovative, is also an astonishment. It may be the most beautiful film I have ever seen. Set in the rustic Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine in a timeless 19th century, it tells a simple story of love and death in episodes over many years. This is not important. What is important is the wild and gorgeous visuals, the amazing music and sound, the joyful and exuberant pure moviemaking. It exemplifies that artistic virtue that Hazlitt celebrated: gusto. Paradjanov (aka Parajanov or Pradzhanov) used static shots of striking tableaux to compose Color. There is some of that in Shadows, but it is more characterized by bravura camera movement, often hand-held. As in that film the costuming and production design are reason enough to watch. They give you a look at rich traditions of material culture that are unfamiliar to most Americans, without descending into picture-postcard ethnography. Paradjanov yanks you into the past as an alternate reality, alien but recognizably human and alive.

Due to Soviet oppression, including time in jail, Paradjanov only completed three feature films after Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (he did some work prior to it, but it is not generally considered significant and is unavailable). The 1970’s were a lost decade for him, but he did come back in the 80’s to make two more films. I have not yet seen them, but might have to post again when I do.

I had the advantage of watching the DVD of this movie in a theater. As much as a sensory experience as it is, you want to see it under the best conditions you can get. It is up on Youtube, but it might be a disappointment to watch it that way. (On the other hand, I have only seen Color of Pomegranates on a laptop, streaming from Netflix, and that worked pretty well for me. It helps that it is more static, and, in a negative way, that it seems that no available video of it has very good image quality (washed out color is the main problem, though that also adds some funky exotic lost-in-time coolness to it), so there is no ideal option for viewing. No longer streaming from Netflix, it can be found in different versions on Youtube and Vimeo, the prior somewhat preferable for content, the latter perhaps offering a better image.)

Despite his tragically limited filmography and relative obscurity, Sergei Paradjanov deserves to be ranked as one of the true greats, one of the unique geniuses, of cinema.

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