Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964, Sergei Parajanov)
Quest Status: 740 / 1000
Like the tall tree that fatally kills the protagonist's brother in the opening scene, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a towering film. The title is fitting: made in the Soviet Union but set in 19th century rural Ukraine, it's a film which evokes a past which had already been forgotten. Watching more than 50 years later, the world that it depicts could just as well be 1,000 years in the past rather than only a century and a half. The language is a regionally specific Ukrainian dialect which would have been all but unintelligible to contemporary Russians, not to mention the costumes and folk music. Director Sergei Parajanov isn't interested in explaining this world to us - just recreating it as best he can and throwing the viewer unassisted, to find their own way or get dragged under by the tide.
Parajanov employs a wide range of bravado visual techniques to immerse the viewer in this disorienting world - including frequent use of handheld camera that mimics the point of view of some unseen observer, or crane shots that emphasize movement in or around the frame. My favorite shot was one which passes over a giant wooden raft as it soars down the river carrying the heartbroken Ivan, whose childhood love has just died in a tragic drowning accident. In the section that follows, Ivan falls into a deep depression, which is captured in grainy black and white scenes, occasionally interrupted by superimposed montages rendered in vivid color for maximum contrast. In the midst of all this visual cacophony, the story often becomes practically nonexistent - especially in the second half, which consists mostly of brief and indistinct vignettes. Still, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is chock full of visual genius that's worth a watch for all fans of the weird and otherworldly.
The Color of Pomegranates (1969, Sergei Parajanov)
Quest Status: 741 / 1000
With his follow-up to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Sergei Parajanov managed to do everything that made Shadows controversial with the Soviet censors--and then took it ten steps further. Various actors portray a poet-like figure who can be seen as a mythic representation of the Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova, although the viewer is given no biographical information about him whatsoever, and what actual events are portrayed are filtered through layers of symbolism and visual poetry. A huge flock of sheep flood into a church to attend a deceased dignitary’s funeral. A nun dressed in white is hoisted up and down by a rope, while other nuns walk up the stairs behind her. Men duel on horses while a bearded man holds a peacock’s beak tenderly in his mouth. An angelic baby is often seen spinning in the background, mystic women hold tapestries and gaze into the camera, and when the poet’s death comes, a green and white Angel of Resurrection douses him with wine (or blood) from a blue urn before sending him to his final rest amongst a sea of candles.
Believe it or not, that list doesn’t even begin to cover all of the weird things that happen in this movie. But besides being a supreme example of weird cinema, The Color of Pomegranates also manages to realize the cinema of poetry that Jean Cocteau strived for but was never quite able to reach. With its three-act structure featuring different actors and settings but united by common symbols and themes, Pomegranates is reminiscent of Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, as well as his final film, The Last Testament of Orpheus. But where Cocteau’s films often feel like incomplete sketches, weighed down by theory and the written word, with Pomegranates, Parajanov succeeded in creating an entirely unique visual language that stands alone in the history of film.