With imagery that makes Dali’s surrealism look like a kids’ coloring book—pig-riding demons, bleeding bread, slain children—and enough psychedelic color washes to give Dario Argento a seizure, Soviet director Yuri Ilyenko’s The Eve of Ivan Kupalo left my mouth agape and my brain swirling. The 1968 mindbender, playing at the Hollywood Theatre at 9:30 pm Monday, Nov. 24, tells the story of a peasant who sells out to the devil to win the hand of his love. Or something like that. It’s an exceptionally bizarre example of Ukrainian poetic cinema, a topic about which AP Film Studies is blissfully underqualified to speak.
So, this week, we’ve brought in Emory University’s James Steffen, an expert on Soviet cinema, to give us the scoop.

WW: Can you explain a bit about Ukrainian poetic cinema and Yuri Ilyenko's role in it?

James Steffen: Ukrainian poetic cinema originated in the silent era, and was revived in the 1960s with Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which Ilyenko photographed. It was a way of expressing and preserving a specifically Ukrainian identity while pushing the boundaries of film language. Ilyenko's visual style is more extravagant than other filmmakers' in the Ukrainian poetic school, with the exception of Parajanov.

I'm assuming this film is steeped in—or at least inspired—by folklore. 

I think the film's style was inspired in part by a desire to convey the fantasy and grotesque comedy in Nikolai Gogol's early Ukrainian stories. It was adapted from his short story. It also borrows from—and exaggerates—visual motifs from Ukrainian folk art.

Is there significance to imagery such as the bleeding bread and the burning fern?

Not that I'm aware of. I think these ideas were just invented by Ilyenko.  

According to the Hollywood and other sources, the Communist government banned the film.

The film was definitely not banned when it was originally made. Ilyenko's first film, A Well for the Thirsty, was banned for 20 years, but this film was released in theaters and reviewed by critics. It wasn't widely distributed at that time, but other Soviet "art" films at that time were also given relatively limited distribution, so it was nothing unique. However, it may have been shelved during the political crackdown in Ukraine. 

The film was poorly received. Do you think it's underrated, or were those critics right?

I don't think it is quite as strong as A Well for the Thirsty—it tries too many different effects, and the historical allegory elements don't mesh well with Gogol's original story. But it's crammed with amazing imagery.

Also Showing: 

  1. Joy Cinema’s free Weird Wednesday series rolls out the horror classic House on Haunted Hill. The Vincent Price one. Not the Lisa Loeb and Chris Kattan one. Joy Cinema. 9 pm Wednesday, Nov. 19.
  1. Obscure nerd collective Church of Film presents 1971’s Malpertuis, a gothic fantasy starring Orson Welles. North Star Ballroom. 9 pm Wednesday, Nov. 19.
  1. The NW Film Center dedicates the week to some of the finest looks at World War I, including Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Parade and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Nov. 19-23. See nwilm.org for full listings.
  1. The Red Violin traces the 400-year history of a Nicolo Bussotti violin, which survived war and being yelled at by Samuel L. Jackson. The actual violin will be present, and played by Elizabeth Pitcairn of the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Hollywood Theatre. 6:15 pm Thursday, Nov. 20.
  1. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown might be the most labyrinthine and confusing detective tale of the modern era. It’s also the best. Laurelhurst Theater. Nov. 21-26.
  1. Beer-drenched Canadian comedy Strange Brew is perhaps the smartest goofball comedy ever. Between Rick Moranis extinguishing a fire with urine and a drunken dog that flies, it’s easy to miss that it’s a sly update of Hamlet, with Bob and Doug McKenzie as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Academy Theater. Nov. 21-26.
  1. Bad Movie Nite screens a mystery flick apparently about mind-controlling, blood-drinking beasts. Clinton Street Theater. 9:30 pm Friday, Nov. 21.
  1. Grindhouse rolls out a secret screening of a rare 35 mm flick that you probably don’t want to take your mom to, unless she’s really into boobs and violence. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Nov. 25.