Perfection is rare. That’s why it’s remarkable. There are few films one can, in all seriousness, call perfect. A personal list might include Sunrise, Rear Window, a few films by Fellini and Bresson, and that’s about it.
Except there’s Russian visionary Sergei Parajanov’s 1964 masterpiece Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors. Its perfection is a result of an exact match between Parajanov’s complex intentions and flawless execution. Raised in Caucasus as the son of Armenian parents, and the widower of a first wife murdered for her conversion from Islam to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Parajanov was fascinated with Russian minority cultures, their haunting magic but also their strict social structures. He had directed a number of films based on folktales before Shadows, but this film was a feat hitherto unrealized by anyone else: a cinematic imagining of a traditional society that painstakingly showcased its rich legacy of costume, song and ritual, but also created a wholly modern movie grammar in tandem.
In baseball (stay with me here), no-hitters and perfect games are thrown most often by strikeout pitchers. The fewer balls in play, the less chance of a hit. Thus, power is the handmaiden of perfection. But power can just as often doom a pitcher to wildness — before their dominance, Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson (six combined no-hitters and perfect games) were talented but inconsistent flame-throwers. Control must guide, focus power. Parajanov’s Shadows exemplifies this principle cinematically. It is literally a moving picture, not only in terms of its emotional impact, but in terms of its ceaseless kineticism. Everything is in motion: the camera, the actors, the elements, and all are precisely interrelated. Parajanov takes Shadows beyond a merely ethnographic venture by filming Ivan Chendej’s screenplay (adapted from Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky’s book), about star-crossed lovers in a Hutsul community nestled in the Carpathian mountains, as a study of forms in collision and the universe in violent flux. From the opening, in which a tree crushes a man saving young Ivan (we see the fall from the tree’s perspective), to the unforgettable ending, during which a whirling camera enhances the vertigo of a dancing circle of drunken funeral guests, Shadows enacts a hallucinatory expressionism without ever losing sight of the tragic story’s human dimension. Parajanov’s style, which would become more tableau-based in The Color of Pomegranates, his last film (and another masterpiece) before Soviet authorities imprisoned him for his extra-political artistry, is here at its most balanced, containing both the reverberations of the mysterious Carpathian environment of snow, rocks and forests, and a hidden realm of sorcery, spirits and death. There’s at once a direct accounting of reality and a feverish religious reverie — if Shadows’ story of Ivan’s depression and subsequent crazed longing after his true love’s death predicts the pagan macabre of Satyricon and the aboriginal obsession of Herzog’s work, it also expands on the legacy of Eisenstein, whose belief in film’s ability to explode convention took him from revolutionary montage to the ancient rites of Mexico. Shadows possesses the force and control of October, but Parajanov’s more radical filmmaking and his trust in the sacred make it something greater, something perfect.