Friday, September 21, 2012

Ukraine's Soviet-era Cinema

 Now that Ukraine has been an independent nation for a while, its culture -- which had long been suppressed, first by the czarist regime, then by the Soviets -- has been experiencing a resurgence. Ths revival was evidenced by an unprecedented showing of Soviet-era films from Ukraine by The Film Society of Lincoln Center last week, that ran from September 7 – 12, entitled, ”Capturing the Marvelous: Ukrainian Poetic Cinema.”

At first the term “poetic cinema” -- used to describe the series -- seemed perplexing and paradoxical to the uninitiated movie-goer, particularly when tied to the reigning "Socialist Realist" aesthetic of the Soviet era. It was Stalin, after all, who declared that “the production of souls is more important than that of tanks” and termed artists “engineers of the human soul.”A typical result of that mandate was what was often referred to as that uninspired “girl meets tractor” art, which existed in a soul-less vacuum to glorify the building of the Soviet state.

And all the more remarkable, then, was this retrospective, where one could see film-makers pushing the limits of what was allowed, at  the inevitable cost of invoking the wrath of the censors Its kaleidoscope of forbidden national folkloric and religious images on the movie screen served as an all-encompassing metaphor for the indomitable Ukrainian “spirit”: 
For example, the film that forms the cornerstone of the series,“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” is nothing less than a spiritual story of transcendence. ("Satan," is its subversive message says, "exists only in the deeds of man.") Produced by Sergei Parajanov in 1965, the movie focuses on the tragic love story of Ivanko and Marichka that takes place among the colorful Hutsul folk in the “god-forsaken” harsh terrain of the Carpathian Mountains. The film contrasts the sweet and tender spiritual love of Marichka (that is not meant to be in this misbegotten world) with the carnal and treacherous love of Palagna that ultimately betrays and kills Ivanko. .It floods the viewer with allegorical images: a star, a lamb, for Marichka; an apple, a kiss of betrayal, for Palagna. The movie can be seen as a meditation on the existence of evil in this world, and it ascribes to a medieval-type Christian world view that life is but an arduous journey. Toward the ending of the film, the camera spins and twirls out of control as indifferent villagers dance a folk dance in a drunken frenzy at Ivanko’s wake. Yet it is he who triumphs in the end as he experiences a mystical reunion with his true love Marichka

A simple jewel of a film, Leonid Osyka’s “The Stone Cross,” made in 1968 – also strikingly illustrates this spirituality. It is a story of sin and redemption. As the film begins, a hardened peasant curses God for the parched soil that yields so little that he must leave his native land to survive. When a thief breaks into his larder, the enraged old man summons the village elders to exact their crude justice. The old man has a change of heart and experiences a transformation not unlike that of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Nonetheless, the unyielding elders kill the thief. Next, we see the old man struggling to drag a stone cross up a hill, a scene rife with allegory. The meaning of the cross is complex, multi-layered, and endless. It serves as a memorial of the thief and others who have died; as a sign of the old man’s renewed faith; as a memorial to himself as he prepares to embark to Canada. The film ends in a joyous celebration of good will, and it speaks, in particular, to the nation’s uprooted diaspora.

As their film-makers moved on beyond the confines of a narrow proscriptive art, the films featured in this series speak to and about the Ukrainian  “dusha” (or “eternal soul”),  to address the larger questions of the human condition.


  1. I don't know as much about the Soviet era as I probably should. But what has always amazed me is how the soul of the people, even under such a smothering reign of soul-killing ideology, managed to survive and revive as soon as the boot was removed. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of people who grew up under Communism - whether in Romania, or Russia, or other areas. They never fail to amaze me with their warmth and beauty of spirit in spite of what must have been difficult circumstances.

    1. How nice of you to read and comment, Stephanie. Yes, the soul-less ideology of a communist state is deadening. Yet it was religion -- although underground -- and as depicted in these "Soviet" films that invoked the wrath of the censors-- that managed to sustain the Slavic spirit.