It's hard to imagine how anyone could be indifferent to any of Sergei Paradzhanov's films. I think it is safe to say that he is still widely considered to be one of the truly great directors - comfortably on a par with Tarkovsky, Bergman, Dovzhenko, Kurosawa and a handful of others - yet in Paradzhanov's case this reputation is built on the basis of just four films: Tini zabutykh predkiv / Тини забутих предкив (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1964), Sayat Nova (Colour of Pomegranates, 1968), Ambavi Suramis tsikhitsa (The Legend of Suram Fortress, 1984) and Ashugi Qaribi (more commonly known by its Russian title Ashik Kerib, 1988).
In fact, he did direct quite a few more films before 1964 (the Internet Movie Database lists 16) but these are rarely if ever shown, and Paradzhanov himself disowned most of them. His four major films were made under desperately difficult conditions, both financially and politically, yet despite all this, Paradzhanov produced four of the most extraordinary films you are ever likely to see and his place in the pantheon of great film directors seems assured.
Learning from Andrei
The director was born to Armenian parents in Tiflis, Georgia in 1924. During the 1950s he studied in the Dovzhenko Studios in Moscow (for a time under Dovzhenko himself). His film debut came in 1954 and over the next ten years he made a number of films—the ones he was later to dismiss. Unsurprisingly, these films were quite firmly in the Socialist Realist style of the time, although those that have seen them (sadly I have not) say that there are clear signs of the powerful visual imagination that would come to the surface in his much more famous films.
In 1964, Paradzhanov made Tini zabutykh predkiv—the film that was to bring him to the attention of an international audience. He would later say on many occasions that the film that influenced him most profoundly and liberated him from his earlier work was Tarkovsky's Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, 1962). He wrote:
Tarkovsky, who was younger than I by 12 years, was my teacher and mentor. He was the first in Ivan's Childhood to use images of dreams and memories to present allegory and metaphor. Tarkovsky helped people decipher the poetic metaphor. By studying Tarkovsky and playing different variations on him, I became stronger myself.That there was an influence is undeniable, but Paradzhanov's cinematic genius was completely unique and his visual imagination idiosyncratic almost to a flaw, so references and allusions to Tarkovsky are of little help when approaching Paradzhanov's films.
Ethnography or fiction
Tini zabutykh predkiv is set high in the Carpathian Mountains of Western Ukraine, amongst the Hutsul people. It isn't really clear in what period the film is supposed to be set—one source I have seen states it is the early 19th century although I feel that it is more likely to be a little later than that—but in some ways the period is irrelevant. The Hutsul live their lives and customs quite isolated from the rest of the world and the story of Tini zabutykh predkiv could be set at almost any time.
The lives of the Hutsul are difficult and often brutal and death comes frequently. The film opens with the death of Olexa, who is crushed by a falling tree while saving his young brother Ivanko from the same fate. We next find Ivanko in church with his father Pyotr Pavlichuk. Pavlichuk mocks a rich neighbour, Guteniuk, for his generosity in giving to the church compared to his greed when taking from the poorer folk in the village. Guteniuk is angered and the two men fight outside the church. Pavlichuk is killed almost immediately—another funeral takes place.
Ivanko, however, seems relatively untroubled by his father's death, as he is more interested in the Guteniuk's young daughter Marichka. At first the two children taunt each other but they are soon playing and it is clear that this is the real beginning of the story of the film.
These opening scenes may sound depressing in the rather stereotyped "typical Russian film" way, but in fact they are quite the opposite. The action takes place extremely rapidly, at times almost bewilderingly so. The scenes are filmed with a hand-held camera, often at a run, and, it seems, hardly edited at all. There is little dialogue—just enough to drive the film forward—and it is punctuated by bursts of amazing Hutsul folk music. Within five minutes of the beginning of the film you feel you know more about the lives of the Hutsul than you would after watching any number of worthy documentaries.
A stream of images
Paradzhanov likes to insert brief but carefully composed scenes into the rapid flow of action. These are almost like still-lifes, focussing on some image that has caught the director's eye: a detail of costume, a striking face, a loaf of bread. This is the technique he would use almost to excess in his famous Sayat Nova, but in Tini zabutykh predkivthese images flash past quickly and seamlessly.
We now move on to the first section of the story proper: "Ivanko and Marichka". (The film is divided into named sections: The Pasture, Loneliness, Workdays, Christmas, and so on). The two children play together to a background of children's songs. We learn about the hatred of Ivanko's mother for the Guteniuks, so it is easy and tempting to cast the story as a kind of Hutsul Romeo and Juliet. Again, it is hard to convey the speed and economy of the film at this stage.
Paradzhanov always gives the viewer just enough information, be it on screen or in the music or dialogue, so that we know where we are in the story, and then hurries on. The two children play together innocently and happily, but suddenly we realise that their innocent play is beginning to turn into something else, and then moments later we find Ivanko and Marichka as a young man and woman hopelessly in love with each other.
Again, the camera is hand-held, fast, sometimes out of focus, sometimes filming through an almost impenetrable wall of trees and bushes, allowing only hints of what is happening, and as ever the dazzling visuals are overlaid with equally dazzling music.
The section ends as Ivan (his transition to manhood is marked by dropping the diminutive form of his name) sets off to work as a hired hand in the summer pastures high in the mountains. We are reminded of the harshness of this life: six of Ivan's mother's six children have died, as well as her husband, and now her Ivan is leaving. But he has to go and so he and Marichka part.
A life of hardship
I don't think it's giving too much away to discuss what happens next. It's not that the story is predictable, but rather that it is archetypal: we know from the beginning that tragedy is never far away, and sure enough, while Ivan is away Marichka slips and falls into the river while trying to rescue a lost sheep, and is drowned. Ivan returns and is, of course, utterly devastated when he sees Marichka's body.
It is noticeable that the film changes from the breathlessness exuberance of the beginning to a more somber and slower mood. Ivan goes into rapid decline, wandering from village to village in his despair, doing odd jobs to keep body and soul together. (The film shifts to black and white at this point, which may be intended symbolically to reflect Ivan's despair, but I suspect probably had more to do with Paradzhanov running out of colour film stock and having to use what was available to him).
In section five, "Ivan and Palagna", we see that Ivan has begun to get himself together again and has found a new woman, Palagna. They marry and settle down together, but it is clear that something is not right. The marriage doesn't appear to be consummated, and whilst Ivan isn't openly cruel to Palagna, neither does he show her any love as he is still haunted by Marichka's spirit.