Judge Joel Pearce found these films appealing to his caviar taste.
The forgotten work of a lesser-known master.
In all honesty, I had never heard of Larisa Shepitko before diving into this eclipse set from Criterion. Like most of the Eclipse series, the films within are designed to make a statement. In this case, they have taken a film from early in Shepitko's career and another from the end of her career, which was cut short by an early death. The result is a fascinating look at this post-war Russian director, as she creates films that show creativity, depth of character, and a surprising level of humanity.
Facts of the Case
The first of the two films is Wings, which explores the life of a middle-aged former Russian pilot named Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova). She is now a headmistress, and her adopted daughter has gotten married and doesn't like to visit. Completely alone, Nadezhda realizes that she's become a lonely older woman, showing nothing of the glory that she did as a fighter pilot.
The second film is The Ascent, a World War II film from the Russian perspective. In it, two Russian soldiers are captured by the Nazis. Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) has already been sick and wounded, but has a strong sense of idealism that holds him up. While Rybeck (Vladimir Gostyukhin) is clearly a stronger soldier, his own desire to live—no matter what the cost—makes him a significantly less noble cinematic figure.
The most astonishing thing about Wings is how young Shepitko was when she directed it. It feels like the work of an older director, one who would understand what it's like to live in the shadow of your younger self. That's certainly Nadezhda's experience, as she finds herself dealing with the mundane details of middle-age life. She has some suitors, but none that she takes seriously. She has no friends, and she finds herself spending much of her time dealing with students, though she doesn't connect to them.
This isn't just a story about a war hero who has a hard time fitting in back home, though. Instead, Wings explores Nadezhda's experience 20 years later. At the beginning of the film, we see her accepting an award for her work as the headmaster of the school, though she is more occupied by her expulsion of an errant student. The process feels pathetic and hollow to her, even more so when she realizes that she was much too harsh with the boy. Alone and disappointed with herself, she decides to do two things: change her life now and look back to a better time.
Much of Wings's success leans on the performance of Bulgakova, and she does deliver a phenomenal performance. On a whole, the film doesn't stand out in terms of its storytelling or cinematography, but as a sensitive human portrait, it truly is remarkable.
The Ascent, without question, is a more accomplished film. While at first it seems too politically safe, playing a nationalistic tone that would ensure its safe release in 1970s Russia, it quickly develops into a moral exploration of war and death. In a culture like Communist Russia (especially among hard-line Bolsheviks), can there be any meaning in death? If life is all there is, should we cling to it no matter what the cost?
The message of The Ascent is obviously that no, there are more important things than simply living. Rybeck is a coward of the worst kind, and Sotnikov is able to see something important that gives his life and death meaning for the people around him. The patient pace of the film gives the audience time to reflect and respond, and there's a lot more to look at in this film as well. The Russian winter has been perfectly captured here, a blank white wilderness with black figures moving across it like reverse ghosts. Shepitko's choice to shoot in black and white was a good one, as she uses visual contrast to highlight the differences between the two men. Where Wings is a capable human portrait, The Ascent emerges as a brilliant film that ties the exploration of human conscience to the visual language of film. It shows the skill that Shepitko developed through her career, as well as the tragedy of her early death.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like the other films in the Eclipse series, Criterion hasn't delivered much in terms of extras. Thankfully, there is a good liner explanation for each film, giving some much needed context for films that will be unfamiliar to most. Fortunately, they haven't given the transfers short shrift, and both look excellent for their age. The films are slightly windowboxed, but have good detail and contrast. The sound is delivered in the original mono mix and has been suitably cleaned and mastered. In all, these two films make an excellent choice for the Eclipse Series.
Admittedly, Larisa Shepitko's films aren't going to appeal to a very wide audience. That said, those interested in foreign and classic film should definitely consider adding this set to their collections. Shepitko had a unique cinematic voice, and this is a great opportunity to hear it. While Wings wouldn't be worth buying on its own, it adds depth and texture to The Ascent, which alone is worth the price of admission.
Not guilty. Now maybe Shepitko will get the attention she deserves.
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