It is a silent film, where the dialogue is part of the score, which is extraordinary: folk music played on traditional instruments producing avant-garde effects. The movie is even split up into chapters, with titles informing us of what is to happen next. The results are incongruous, and we assume they are meant to be; these old cinematic conventions dressed up in brilliant colour and allied to a very modern technique (which has since dated slightly) to create an alienating quality that is ideal for capturing the foreignness of a pre-modern society.
Set somewhere in the late Middle Ages, the almost static quality of the film captures the monumentalism of the old legends on which it is based. The currency of myths is the archetype; this creates characters with a stolidity and an opacity that is alien to psychological realism (whose concerns are the flux and flow of an individual’s interior life). Poetry and painting are the two mediums most suited to myth, the reason, no doubt, that this film feels more like a gallery (crowded with paintings) than a theatre (staging a play). It is full of arresting images, some of which are amongst the best we have ever seen on a cinematic screen; this director a painter who works on celluloid.
All the film’s meaning is carried by the images and the movement of the camera, a character in its own right, whether jigging about in the first of the funeral celebrations; or performing a long arc shot around a dead body (to capture the tense expectancy of a man who believes it is his dead lover); or lengthening the inn table to create a gothic effect around the film’s one villain, Gutenyuk; and on and on and on…. The form of the film is a large part of its meaning.
The voices are a chorus. While the plethora of pipes, Jew’s harps, horns and flutes are integral to the action, much of which has the stately elegance of ritual, as well as being a conventional score (although we imagine musicians in a theatre pit accompanying the silent screen).
The story is very simple. There is a feud between two families, which results in the ruin of one – the Paliychuks. It is a fateful tragedy, where bad luck is weaved so finely into a person’s life that it cannot be unpicked. The past, as real as the trees Ivan chops and the girls he kisses, is itself a character; one that is enormously powerful; too powerful for ordinary mortals, who need a hero to defeat it. Ivan’s destiny is to suffer and fail; forced by his own past and his uncontrollable feelings to confront a social order that is too strong for his weak soul to overcome. A pattern has been set that he must accept, or he will be destroyed in his fight against it. Indeed, his doomed love is part of this pattern. The love of Ivan and Marichka sustained precisely because they have been kept apart; thus creating a beautiful but unnatural relationship that should have withered under the pressures of social contingency - most boys and girls are too promiscuous in their affections to marry their first loves. Ivan must fail because he won’t give up Marichka, and so submit to his community’s expectations, part of the natural order of this world.
For most of the film this is not obvious. The love between Ivan and Marichka appears to offer an escape from their historical fate; although their love is ridden with foreboding – there are times when both are convinced they will never marry because of the family feud.
This relationship is described in large chunks of story that are more metaphorical than realistic; thus the long sequence where they are children living alone together in the woods. These simple scenes of innocence, such as when they bathe naked in the river, are threatened by the strange sounds of the forest, which later merge with the calls of Marichka’s parents; another kind of wild animal, and more dangerous than the others.
These calls are a feature of the film, which begins with one: Olekso! Olekso! They are such a feature that we begin to hear them as a theme; and snatches of Wagner float into the memory… An influence?
Years later we meet Ivan and Marichka in church. It is a religious festival, although we are confused into thinking it is their wedding. A narrative device that is also a metaphor: they are young adults now, and their love has matured – they are married in all but name. It is during these sections of the film that Paradjanov paints a number of beautiful images, which have the tincture of Socialist Realism, although they are used to illustrate the lonely love of this doomed couple, destined to remain apart. The most striking image occurs at night, and takes place amongst a constellation of empty wooden frames (designed to hold hay). The lovers are photographed in bold relief against the deep blue of the evening sky; the black wood of the frames creating geometric patterns around them. Shot from below Marichka looks like an icon. And indeed, there is something religious about their love, which although consummated is more of the spirit - because denied - than of the flesh; it contains within itself a yearning to transcend this (communitarian) life they cannot leave.
Sometimes the metaphors are very obvious. It doesn’t matter. They retain their power. In one scene Ivan leaves the community to find work. Although a sunny day it suddenly rains, and the couple is soaked. This is so full of symbolism that we realise that it is meant to look artificial; its meaning more important than any realist effects; a shower of beautiful rain an analogue to their feelings, where the happiness of love is mixed with the sorrow of parting to create a painful ecstasy.
There are times when we think it is the Soviet censors who have created the metaphors. Thus we don’t see the couple having sex; Ivan eats an apple instead. We know Marichka is pregnant because the local witch gives her pomegranate seeds. And when the sorcerer fucks Palagna we see a burning tree. Soviet Puritanism has forced the director into elaborate metaphor; one reason this kind of film could not have been made in the West at that time; both the freedom of the directors and the expectations of the audiences demanding realistic portrayals of sexual intimacy, even if all the characters had to keep their clothes on.i Such moral modesty increases the film’s power.
Marichka is pregnant. This is symbolised by the black lamb she rescues from the cliff face. As she carries it to safety a rock ledge collapses, and she falls; the river carrying her body away. Has she died while having an abortion? Or, more plausibly (the lamb survives), has she expired during childbirth? Both interpretations are possible, although this episode serves a wider metaphorical purpose: the black lamb is her love for Ivan, and she dies when trying to save it. For Marichka, in straying too far from her village, has risked too much in rescuing an animal that could have found its own way down. Love is dangerous in this community. Far safer to acquiesce to an arranged marriage.
A friend tells Ivan not to extinguish the fire, as it will go out on its own accord. This fire burns inside a dark and impoverished hut; its rag door slowly flapping back and forth to reveal the bustling countryside. This advice refers not to the domestic fire but to Ivan’s mental health; a warning that he should not kill himself in his despair. Although it could also refer to the couple’s love. Trying to preserve what has expired can only lead to madness and decay. Accept the natural order of things. Allow your feelings to fade. A childish love should not be sustained into an adult passion, while a dead love must not be permanently mourned; such piety unnatural and a little crazy. This is old wisdom, which suggests spiritual love can actually be dangerous. And yet the Christian church plays a prominent role in this community, although when the film ends we realise it has not transcended this society’s original pre-Christian culture. The natural cycles of life and death, and of birth and renewal, are far stronger than the eternal claims of Christ and his disciples.
The (imposed?) metaphors do not spoil the film, because it so rich in them. After Marichka is buried Ivan sees a doe by her grave. He believes it is her reincarnated spirit. He now falls into depression and the colour is taken out of the film, so that for a long time we see only black and white as Ivan sinks down into tramp-like oblivion. Then one day he is rescued by some randy women during a local festival, where they force him to drink vodka and participate in their orgiastic fun – even in rags he remains a handsome man.
His resurrection indicates another curious aspect of this film. While the three central characters are clearly delineated they are also embedded deep within their communities - you can hardly hear the soloists for the ensemble -; and it is these communities that create the atmosphere that dominates this movie. Not only through the numerous public events - the funerals, the weddings, the religious festivals -, but also in these characters’ daily activities, such as the communal meals, the collective work, and their local entertainments. This is a social world where difference and eccentricity is viewed as a kind of madness; which can be respected but is usually despised. Ivan’s and Marichka’s love is unusual, and it puts them slightly outside their society, where they must carry the weight of their own freedom, which is too much for them; cleverly symbolised by Marichka’s fall.
When Ivan recovers he marries an attractive woman, and colour returns to our eyes. The women of his extended family predict a happy future, when he will have a younger woman to look after him in old age. They are bad prophets. A marvellous scene accurately predicts what is going to occur. Ivan and Palagna are collecting hay. Ivan scoops it up and passes it to his wife who packs it on top of the haystack. They are happy and contented, and when they finish Ivan helps her down; a moment of tenderness when they seem on the threshold of making love. It is not to be. As Palagna slides slowly down the hay Ivan doesn’t grab out to hold her, but lets her slip to the ground, where she clings floppily to his legs. He stands for a few seconds, and then he walks away, leaving Palagna to sit alone with her head bowed. Not a word has been spoken, yet we know that Ivan is impotent. He walks to the pond and looks down at his own viscous reflections. It is a brilliant image that reminds us of Dali: a specialist in finding metaphors for limp pricks.
Palagna believes that the spirit of Marichka has bewitched Ivan. She is right, her psychological analysis as good as Sigmund Freud’s. Unfortunately, Ivan cannot be cured, and she slides into promiscuity, eventually to fall for his familial enemy, Gutenyuk. Yet there are no melodramatic scenes in this domestic tragedy. There is no extended dialogue, no arguments, no sarcasm, no long confessions; their suffering is palpable but mute. For these are legends not human beings. Ivan’s fall is shown through a series of images, almost like an interconnected sequence of woodcuts; bold and crudely cut images which are painted with beautiful colours. Thus there are the mummers who visit the farmhouse, one of whom seduces Palagna while Ivan stands outside the family compound holding a scythe. In another scene the couple sit in front of a large table full of food, which is to remain uneaten; Palagna to eventually cover it up with a cloth as Ivan drinks himself to sleep.
The climax takes place inside a Jewish tavern. Ivan and Palagna enter, and she goes to sit with Gutenyuk and smokes his pipe. This provokes Ivan’s friend, who encourages him to fight his old enemy. Like his father he takes up the challenge, loses and dies.
Hit over the head with an axe, Ivan stumbles around the bar, which is now filmed in negative, and is covered in red. It is an extraordinary moment and we experience a revelation. Suddenly we understand! We have been watching this world through the eyes of Ivan; this film full of expressionistic devices. We recall the opening scenes. In the first, the forest is seen from the top of a falling tree; and when it falls there is Ivan trying to pull his hand free from his dead brother’s grasp. In the second, fast moving camera movements dance up and down in front of the musicians and actors who are celebrating the funeral; their faces seeming almost to jump into ours. These are not “objective” photographs recording “reality”. They are subjective impressions which have taken on their own elastic life - the dead hand that won’t let Ivan go, a funeral that is a bizarre and incomprehensible carnival -; fear and confusion heightening and distorting this young boy’s perceptions, which we experience directly.
In the very last scene - it is another funeral - the camera work is more sedate. With Ivan dead we now see this world from inside the community. What a strange place it is. Death is a time for a celebration. It is an excuse for an orgy and the creation of new life.
(Review: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors)
[i] Compare a film that was made in the exactly the same year: Lilith. Another film rich in symbolism and legend, but one which is dominated by a psychological realism that is obsessed by the characters’ eroticism. And yet there is more nakedness in this film. American Puritanism a different variant altogether.