I’m not entirely sure whether this Ukranian film was meant to be experimental, but it sure as hell was fascinatingly odd.
Based on an early 20th-Century novel, this starts out as a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet doomed love story between Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk) and Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), two youngsters in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine. They’re just kids when Marichka’s father kills Ivan’s father, so they innocently strike up a friendship when they meet in the hills while tending goats. But when they’re older and fallen in love they’ve figured out they need to stay on the down-low, and hatch a plan to elope. Ivan just needs to head out to the next town over to make some money first. But – while he’s away, and Marichka is still faithfully tending to her papa’s goats, she loses her footing while chasing a stray kid and drowns in the local river.
A heartbroken Ivan spends the rest of the movie just sort of going through the motions in mourning. He does in time marry another local girl named Palahna (Tatyana Bestayeva), but is still so hung up on Marichka that he can’t consummate their marriage. A frustrated Palahna soon starts an affair with another dude in town, Yurko (Spartak Bagashvili); Yurko is a sort of folk magician she’s hoping will help her get pregnant, either with magic or….more conventional means. But Ivan is apparently also pursuing his own magic goal to somehow reunite with Marichka – either in this world, or the next.
Strangely, I kept thinking of last year’s The Green Knight as I watched this. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight is from a period when Christianity was so new to England that it hadn’t completely wiped pre-Christian Celtic lore, which made for some strange and eerie mashups of Christian and folkloric imagery; The Green Knight really leaned into the resulting weirdness, with talking foxes and a Green Man figure and huge bald giants talking in garbled feedback and howling like wolves. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors has a similar sort of folkloric weirdness – Christianity is very much a Thing in Ivan’s world, but so are potions and spells, ghosts in the woods, costumed ritual dancing and a wedding custom involving blindfolds and an ox yoke. Things are a riot of color and symbol for much of the film – save for the section immediately following Marichka’s death, when director Sergei Parajanov switches everything to a moody black and white, echoing Ivan’s sorrow.
And honestly, it’s the look of things that saved this for me. The performances are the one weak spot here; this was a film debut for Mykolaichuk and one of the only films for Kadochnikova. Bestayeva is one of the only veterans in the cast, and even here she’d only had six other films under her belt before getting cast as Palahna. Fortunately the story was simple enough for me to follow and grasp what was happening, but I could have done with the acting being a tiny bit better. Happily, the sheer weirdness of Ivan and Marichka’s world kept me interested all the same.