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Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko (Wings / The Ascent) (The Criterion Collection)

4.8 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

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 Tarkovsky’s, Wings and The Ascent are social dramas investigating the inner minds of protagonists yearning to be elsewhere. Wings (1966), Sheptiko’s 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 Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, The Ascent charts a character’s 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

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Maya Bulgakova, Boris Plotnikov
  • Directors: Larisa Shepitko
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Black & White, Dolby, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
  • Language: Russian
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Criterion Collection
  • DVD Release Date: August 12, 2008
  • Run Time: 194 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0019X3ZZO
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #99,555 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko (Wings / The Ascent) (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Randy Buck VINE VOICE on August 25, 2008
The stated mission of Criterion's Eclipse line was to bring us good DVD editions of important films heretofore unavailable on DVD, in high-quality transfers and low-cost packages. They've succeeded in spades with their first ten issues, but none have brought me more pleasure than their eleventh, this set of two films from Russian director Larissa Shepitko. Her tragic death in a car accident at the early age of 40 has meant that her international reputation was eclipsed by many of her film school contemporaries. But, as this package shows, her talent was second to none. Two of her four completed films are on display; WINGS, the first, provides a marvelous role for character actress Maya Bulgakova, deeply moving as a middle-aged school principal longing for the freedom of her early days as a fighter pilot. This is a fine, incisive piece of filmmaking; the other picture, THE ASCENT, is, without question, a great movie. Following the travails of two Bellarussian partisans struggling to find food for their troop, the picture's harrowing and heartfelt, and, in its passionate, mystical treatment of Christian themes, squarely in the tradition of Tolstoi and Dostoevsky. Both films share a technique that's a fascinating mix of closely observed realistic detail and sudden, breathtaking bursts of poetry. Thanks to this set, a new generation of film fans will have a chance to revel in the subtle pleasures of Shepitko's work. Highly, highly recommended.
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As a huge Criterion fan, I knew I had to bust my cherry with the Eclipse series sometime, and I couldn't have picked a better choice.
To put it blindly, this is their best looking transfer from an old Mosfilm print since they put out "Ivan's Childhood" a year or so ago (the early ones that Criterion put out, such as "Andrei Rublev" and "Cranes Are Flying", look terrible by comparison.)
As part of the dazzling 'THAW' generation of filmmakers (Tarkovsky, Parajanov, German, Klimov) that emerged post-Stalin, Larisa Shepitko is criminally unknown. All faced censorship problems, and viewed now, her films, especially "Wings", about a woman who often escapes the unhappiness of her drab life through her imaginative memory of the past, seems quite subversive. "The Ascent" is a WWII film, with Russian characters that are at times cowardly and cruel. The winter photography and windswept sound design emit a chill from every frame, and the movie is at times poetic and detached, as Elem Klimov's better known masterwork "Come and See..." (a sort of companion piece in some ways) is visceral and subjective.
But what makes these films most remarkable is Shepitko's distinctly feminine voice and fragile human sensiblity, often letting her camera focus and linger quietly on the suffered faces of her actors, conjuring strong emotional sympathy from the slightest gesture or close-up in the same way pre-feminist directors like Bergman and Mizoguchi do (a true anamoly in the restrictive climate of the USSR). Shepitko's style is more hidden, subtle, we don't get much in the way of long/slow tracking shots, experimental editing or pretentious auteurism like many of her contemporaries.
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It is never a good idea to engage in the game of "best ever" or "Top 100" lists -- they are often only useful for what they exclude. In any event, it is worth noting that this 1977 outing by Larisa Shepitko is not included on TIME critic Richard Corliss's list of 100.

And, although a masterpiece like this is greater than the sum of its parts, it is perhaps easier to comprehend why it stands so far above its peers by considering it in parts. To begin with, Shepitko's choice of black-and-white is not one of those self-consciously "arty" choices (as with, for instance, Woody Allen) -- instead, the color scheme serves a symbolic purpose. It also assists in making the snow-blind visuals all the more stark and compelling.

Second, the score, by Russo-German composer Alfred Schnittke is by turns bizarre and terrifying. During the "hallucination" sequences, we hear echoing clarinets and simmering percussion. The music for an execution is an incongruously jolly march, a satire of German military band music. At any rate, Shepitko uses Schnittke's music carefully, doling it out in dribs and drabs (like a cook seasoning a meal) until the very end, when she lets the score roil up to a harrowing climax. I have no reservation in proclaiming her use of music to be the best I have ever encountered in a film. Although Hitchcock's collaborations with Herrmann are fine stuff, here we have a composer of greater technique scoring a movie of greater profundity than any of Hitch's work.

Third, the actors' performances are uniform in their high quality, although particular mention must be made of the (name?) actor who plays Portnov, the turncoat investigator for the Nazis.
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(Please note this review is only for "The Ascent" and not for "Wings".)

"The Ascent" is one of the few films, along with perhaps Lean's 1948 version of "Oliver Twist" and Bergman's "Persona" which could be described as "perfect". By that I mean that it is a film where there is hardly one wasted shot, where every line of dialogue, gesture, piece of music and mise-en-scene is used with maximum impact. There are better films than "The Ascent", but hardly any others which hit their chosen marks as concisely as Shepitko's masterpiece.

"The Ascent" is also the bleakest of all films, with a final scene of personal suffering that surpasses the grimness of the finales of "Lola Montes" and "Strozsek" combined, and one that seems to reach out to the emptiness and vulnerability in all human beings. It also has, in Anatoly Solinitsyn's performance as the quisling interogator, perhaps the nearest cinema has ever got to portraying sheer evil in human form. It is a magnificent, tortured performance, to me one of the greatest in the history of cinema. (There was good reason that Solinitsyn was Tarkovsky's favourite actor.)

"The Ascent" will probably be forever known as a very "Russian" film, which means it is grim. It is also the greatest film ever made by a female director, as if that distinction matters. But it is better than that. It is a film that asks questions about the human soul while retaining its own soul, and all the time dissecting us with scalpel-like ruthlessness and precision.
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