The career of Larisa Shepitko, an icon of sixties and seventies Soviet cinema, was tragically cut short when she was killed in a car crash at age thirty-nine, just as she was emerging on the international scene. The body of work she left behind, though small, is masterful, and her genius for visually evoking characters interior worlds is never more striking than in her two greatest works: Wings, an intimate yet exhilarating portrait of a female fighter pilot turned provincial headmistress, and The Ascent, a gripping, tragic World War II parable of betrayal and martyrdom. A true artist, who had deftly used the Soviet film industry to make statements both personal and universal, Shepitko remains one of the greatest unsung filmmakers of all time.
Wings and The Ascent, the two films included in this Eclipse series set, are equally bleak and gorgeous. Though they differ greatly, both films focus on heroic characters whose imaginations run free though they are confined by tragic, war-related conditions. Made 10 years apart by Soviet director Larisa Sheptiko, a film-school contemporary of Andrei Tarkovskys, Wings and The Ascent are social dramas investigating the inner minds of protagonists yearning to be elsewhere. Wings (1966), Sheptikos first feature, stars Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), a retired Stalinist fighter pilot who works as a school headmistress, punishing students in lieu of dealing directly with hard feelings she has for her daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), for marrying a man she disapproves of. Though courted by museum curator, Pavel Gavrilovich (Pantelejmon Krymov), "Nadya" wistfully dreams of lost love lost, both for another man and her airplane. Filmed in black-and-white, banal scenes of Nadya shuffling through school halls are interrupted by shots of her plane, gliding through clouds in open air.
The Ascent (1977), on the other hand, is claustrophobically terrestrial. Based on a novella by Vasili Bykov, it depicts two Soviet partisans, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), searching for food to feed their starving troop in German-occupied Belarus. This war film depicts horror through landscape, featuring long shots of frozen tundra and snowy forests. Well-known as a Christian allegory, The Ascent likens Sotnikov to Christ as he morally transcends corruption and cruelty inflicted upon himself and his partner by Russian Nazi-collaborator, Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn). Like Tarkovskys masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, The Ascent charts a characters path through a dark, dismal historical period. Set partially afield and partially in prison camp, it makes for brutal viewing that is nevertheless stunningly rewarding. It is wonderful to have a female auteur to add to the Russian cinematic canon, as Sheptiko brings to these hardened characters a sensitivity that could be construed as feminine. --Trinie Dalton
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