An Introduction to Ukrainian Cinema | Culture, ATLAS

The Ukrainian film has developed in parallel with the Russian. The common origin, dating back to the 1920s, has often conditioned the historical and critical reading of the Ukrainian case, which combines it with the Russian one. In truth, there are some peculiarities that allow us to frame this cinema that distinguishes it from the Soviet. As already pointed out with regard to the Ukrainian theater, Russia has also exercised political control over Ukraine through the language. In fact, Russian was forced into all the territories of the tsarist empire – later the Soviet Union – to the detriment of other languages, including Ukrainian, which, as in other cases, later managed to liberate itself and then establish itself as the language of the official state.

One of the pioneers of this tradition was the director Ivan Kavaleridze (1887-1978). His latest film, Prometej (1936), is characterized by a particularly marked realism, as it gives the viewer a contemporary reading of the imperial past of Russia and Ukraine. The manuscript is filled with references to tradition that are deep into the narrative with foresight about working conditions by the best poet of the classical era, never abandoned a simple and popular encyclopedia. That cast, carefully selected, guarantees the vivid and intense interpretations and a mature and fluid narrative from beginning to end. Especially between the film’s black and white, the intensity of the actors’ bright eyes is striking, especially in the numerous dialogue scenes. Moreover, the presence of popular songs gives the viewer an additional testimony of a cultural context that is unknown to most of the modern international public.

What most distinguishes the work of some of the most popular Ukrainian directors from their Russian counterparts is the strong presence of politically oriented themes, often critical of Russia or in any case unwelcome to the Moscow government. This is especially the case for the Armenian-born director Sergei Iosifovič Paradžanov (1924-1990), who was the initiator of an original reading of Armenian popular culture, often opposed by the Soviet Union. Paradžanov’s cinema certainly fits in the wake of the surreal avant-garde with peculiar characteristics compared to the work of other European colleagues. The movie Sayat Nova (1968), known in Italy with the title The color of pomegranate, was shot completely in Armenia. It is certainly one of the director’s most significant and internationally renowned works. The love of bright colors is combined with a careful selection of the twisted shapes of landscapes and local surroundings. Particularly striking is the photograph, or use of light, which offers a pictorial representation of the characters, often carefully combined with suggestive scenographic elements, carefully selected from furniture, instruments, musical instruments and clothing characteristic of the cultural context of the reference. The selected actors are amplified by the director through a shrewd use of the body and in particular of facial expressions, often combined with traditional Armenian music, in the absence of the characters’ lines. The film had a clear political function that made Paradžanov’s artistic commitment particularly unpleasant in the eyes of the Soviet government.

Another main character in Ukrainian film, active until death, was the director Kira Muratova (1934-2018). In the movie Short meetings (1967) emerges a cross-section of contemporary everyday life, represented through the use of a cast with an important presence of actresses, including Muratova herself. The work is characterized by realistic details, carefully captured and mounted to highlight the intensity of the actors’ interpretation. The choice of a rustic and essential scenography once again contributes to giving the work realism and enhancing the contribution of the individual performers. The presence of parts sung by the actors themselves completes the representation of the chosen popular context. The footage suggests to the viewer a critical reading of the sequences, suggested but not forced by the director through the juxtaposition of everyday objects and elements, such as gratings, windows and furniture, with the fermentation of everyday life and the numerous cross scenes in which it is also possible to appreciate the careful work that the costume designers perform.

Over the last few decades, Ukrainian auteur cinema has been gradually rediscovered, especially in Italy, where critical readings by experts and enthusiasts have multiplied, and the showing of the most important works also on television.


Michele Picchi, Sergei ParadžanovMilan, The Beaver, 1994.

Mirko Riazzoli, The chronology of the cinema. Volume 1 1830-1960Tricase (Lecce), Youcanprint, 2016.

Jane A. Taubman, Kira MuratovaLondon, IB Tauris, 2005.

Image: Exterior of the Odessa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet at the closing ceremony of the Odessa International Film Festival, Odessa, Ukraine (July 21, 2012). Credit: Gelia /

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