The Ascent (1977)

18 08 2008

Of the two Shepitko films I watched, this is definitely the one that is more likely to gain some sort of following. To begin, it has a much defiant visual style than Wings, as there is a very specific and detailed attention to textures. Dramatically, it is also more “defiant” much ultimately means that it is the less subtle of the two. Like Come and See (directed by Shepitko’s husband, Elem Klimov) would later do, this is a very violent and overwhelming account of a tragic war-related story. Perhaps such description makes the comparison seem like a stretch, but the similarities are extremely apparent when one watches both.

A German force attacks a group of partisans hiking in the woods and strips the group of almost all of their supplies. Rybak and Sotnikov escape from the massacre and continue on in the cold, looking for town where they can ask for food and shelter. They reach the village, but nothing remains. Another German group beat them there, and destroyed the town, leaving behind nothing but debris. They manage to find shelter in a family farmhouse, but they are quickly found and sent to death, taking the mother of the family with them.

The film’s overall tone is, as one can anticipate, rather bleak. A majority of the film takes place in the unforgiving climate of Russia in the winter. The protagonists are often starved, on their final breath, or too bruised to continue walking. From the start, Shepitko establishes a sense of great urgency, which can be argued as being too dramatic or too extreme, or anything else to that effect. I guess I also identify with this claim, as I find such a bleak and nasty landscape to be rather one-note. Many people describe the film as harrowing, painful, and overwhelming, but from what I see, that is mostly due to the relentless nature of Shepitko’s negative outlook.

Oddly enough, The Ascent solves the aesthetic problem I had with Wings but creates a whole slew of new problems with its violently tragic tone. The extreme situations do serve one positive point: they are directly responsible for some of the film’s most poetic and moving images. There is great imagery, captured from a distance with Rybak and Sotnikov marching through the snow, but there is an intimate and attentive claustrophobic beauty to the scenes that take place inside. Visually, one cannot ask for much more but dramatically, this is a bit too self-consciously “crazy” to completely work.

Wings (1966)

18 08 2008

A wonderful, albeit no thrills, debut from Larisa Shepitko. Unlike her fellow countrymen, she lacks a very defiant visual style. While it isn’t all that much of a problem in this case, it does make the film feel a lot less personal and unique than it is suppose to be. On the other hand, Shepitko does have a knack for capturing very spontaneous moments, which go well with the frequent narrative ellipses and flashbacks. It is a very subtle and deliberate character study that slowly reveals its true intentions, but once it does, it is quite impressive.

Nadezhda Petrukhina was once a great fighter pilot, but now she is a schoolmistress. Despite the accolades she receives from others, she is still living in the past, constantly rethinking her “glory days” during the war. Ironically enough, she cannot adapt to life without war. Her current lifestyle, while it does have the occasional dramatic incident, does not excite her in the least. She is pegged down by the mundane and repetitious nature of school life, but it is there that her memories of the past begin to blossom.

While I still stand by the initial assessment of the visual style (i.e not that fantastic) there are some nice visual flourishes present throughout. Shepitko, unfortunately though, never does anything particularly interesting with the camera. Everything is rather straightforward with a “put the camera on the person talking” shooting style. Perhaps I’ve been watching one too many visually rich films lately, but Shepitko’s style definitely seems to come dangerously close to being flat-out boring. Especially when one takes into account the visual resourcefulness of someone like say, Tarkovsky, but unfortunately, she does also have the rather ponderous floating camerawork.

In Shepitko’s defense, her strengths don’t seem to lie in her aesthetics, but rather the fragmented way in which she presents the events of the film. Her protagonist isn’t the most captivating of figures at first, seeing as all the audience is originally given is the information that she is a schoolmistress. But this is what makes her storytelling capabilities so fascinating and what ultimately makes this film successful. Slowly, Nadezhda’s past is revealed to us and we begin to create a more vivid mental picture of the character herself. It’s a bit like a suspenseful take on character development as it is only when the film is over that its intentions become clear.