Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Paradjanov, 1964)

I will not dispute the status of Pomegranates as Paradjanov's most heralded film, but I will say that Shadows - as far as I'm concerned - is an even more vibrant and exciting work that dispenses with conventional film language in a manner that I find twice as scintillating as the later masterpiece. Of course, this is arguably the less complex and challenging work of art, but what does that matter when the work in question is as extraordinary as this?

Although I've only seen two of them to date, I've nonetheless arrived at the conclusion that Paradjanov's films are consistently draped in a cultural fabric that's miled removed from our own. In Pomegranates, the director overwhelms his work with symbolism that's daunts as much as it stimulates due to its privileged position in the foreground - the subtext is inextricably bound to the text itself. Shadows utilizes the same complex metaphors that characterize the later film, but here they co-exist with the narrative and enrich (as opposed to define) it. Moreover, Paradjanov grounds the film in an empathetic reality: at its core, Shadows is really a cinematic ballad about one man and his attempts to make peace with a love snatched away by the hands of fate. Armed with the dual forces of both intellectual and emotional wizardry then, Paradjanov crafts a film that's significantly more palatable than the monumental Pomegranates.

That's not to argue that Shadows is less sophisticated in its construction, however. As previously stated, Paradjanov works in a context whereby he can powerfully affirm the localized cultures of the Caucasus. Naturally then, Westernized narratives have no place in this director's filmic worlds. Shadows has an identifiable (but relatively passive) protagonist (Ivan), and reveals traces of traditional plot development, but it stops right there in terms of Western cinematic conventions. The remainder of the film exists partly in the realm of mythical folk tales, and partly as an observational ode to the customs of the Hutsuls. The film is loosely structured as a series of chapters that are inconsistent in length, and one of the most dazzling sequences finds an entire one of these chronicled through the everyday gossip of people who are completely unrelated to the dominant plot strand. This is what I mean when I claim that Paradjanov cares not for our conceptions of narrative exposition! And during the course of some 90-odd minutes, he still manages to find time to interpolate proceedings with a Biblical thread (Pieta; shepherds + sacrificial lambs; the church at the community's centre), whilst implying that the [Spoiler]film's entire first act might've taken place in Ivan's memory,[/Spoiler] thus underlining the density of the film's emotional texture. At its most polar oppositions, Shadows is a work of both irresistible romanticism and harrowing despair. It's to Paradjanov's credit that he so successfully manages to traverse the vast gulf that exists inbetween.

This world of sentimental warfare and spiritual conflicts would make for an engaging film in its own right. When one throws in this director's potent ability to express himself visually however, hyperbolic praise becomes extraordinarily difficult to resist. If The Colour of Pomegranates was a revolutionary declaration of the static camera's potential in cinema; then Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a revelatory extravaganza of delirious kineticism that's perhaps even more breathtaking. Mere words fail to capture the ecstatic rhythms of the director's pulsating camerawork here, the experience is akin to a primal romp played out at a hyperspeed - Paradjanov's camera bounces off walls, waltzes around entire communities and scrutinizes its picturesque surroundings with alarming intensity. From its very outset, it proves itself as quite a literal force of nature: one of the film's very first shots assumes the viewpoint of a falling tree! Later in the film, there's a supernatural occurrence when a similar tree suddenly bursts into flames, as if the fiery depths of Hell have suddenly been unleashed upon Earth. Shadows negotiates a reconciliation of these divergent natural and supernatural impulses, and Paradjanov articulates it most astoundingly following [Spoiler]the death of Ivan's father, whose "soul" is briefly glimpsed through the image of horses in red silhouettes, gracefully departing the body.[/Spoiler] Paradjanov's visual style is an intoxicating concoction of delicious colour schemes, bizarre angles and rapturous movement that could perhaps be described as some sort of super-expressionistic brand of modernism. Except that really, the director's work stubbornly defies the reductive labelling that we're accustomed to in the West. The phrase "seeing is believing" has never been more appropriate than it is here.

In the meantime, it seems necessary for me to return to the aformentioned "emotional texture" of the film, because Shadows particularly resonates on this front. Typically, Paradjanov outlines the foundations of his prevailing concerns from the get-go. [Spoiler]The film opens with the death of Ivan's brother Alekso, who meets his end whilst saving our hero. In effect, the fate that was meant for Ivan has been transferred onto Alekso - but Ivan's destiny continues to haunt him throughout the film (even during that initial death scene, part of Ivan's trauma derives from his inability to escape from the clasp of his brother's dead hand).[/Spoiler] One of the characters describes the world of Shadows as "a land forgotten by God", and it's an apt description because savagery and death seems to be a part of everyday existence here. Ivan's forbidden romance with Marichka then, functions as a tantalizing glimpse of optimism in a pessimistic world. Their scenes together are characerized by an innocence and a joviality that evaporates following [Spoiler]Marichka's death[/Spoiler]; Paradjanov's camera excitedly encircles them as if an extension of their romantic longing, but concurrently embodies the pervading mystical gloom that serves only to entrap them within their fates. Nonetheless, it's Ivan's inability to extinguish that longing that the film venerates. If Pomegranates is about the redemptive power of art, then Shadows is about the transcendent power of love. And really, who can resist such an idea when it's as compellingly rendered as it is here? The final song shared by Ivan and Marichka might well be one of the most gorgeous moments I've ever come across in cinema. Paradjanov's peculiar brand of humanism resonates so strongly with this image of two lovers-that-never-were, lost in the impeccable beauty of their own memories (lest we forget that there's also a celebration of Hutsul culture here thanks to the music involved). Although the film's final shot, [Spoiler]with a manic camera dancing alongside the drunken guests at Ivan's funeral[/Spoiler], draws us back into the circularity of the director's vision [Spoiler](death is inevitable; the world remains indifferent)[/Spoiler], it's the strength of this romance that leaves the most indelible impression here. Paradjanov instils in his audience a sense of yearning for the love itself - and he does it with such panache that one can't help but yearn for a myth like Shadows to accompany it.

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