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Saturday, January 19, 2013

VOSHOZHDENIYE / THE ASCENT (1977)

This fiercely imagined WWII story was the last work of Larisa Shepitko, a rare female in the ranks of Russian directors who died in a car accident two years later at the age of 41. The story opens in snow-blown terrain as a mixed unit of soldiers, partisans & civilians flee on foot from the superior German military machine. Desperate for supplies (food, weapons & ammo, replacements), two men peel off to forage in the area. Their first stop, a farm one of them knows, is burnt out & deserted, and the next two dwellings they come across have little to offer in supplies, comfort or even moral support. The few people they meet are terrified of being caught helping them. This first half of the film is thrilling stuff, beautifully handled and shot, using the old Academy ratio (1.33:1), in superbly detailed b&w. But after the weaker of the two men shoots a German soldier, they find themselves targeted and trapped in the barn of one of their reluctant protectors. Here, the film abruptly shifts from the simplicity of survival tactics during a winter war to the mind games played by prisoners and their masters. We watch as the weak turn strong; the strong turn weak; and terse talk grows windy & philosophical, with nuance rendered large, Ruskie style. We’re out of the tundra and off to the Moscow Art Players. On their own, each works dramatically, though only the first half brings out something special in Shepitko, including unusually fine hand-held camera stuff. Once the Germans round up everyone who had contact with the foraging soldiers, the smell of Soviet political victimization seeps in, along with some old-fashioned declamatory acting and even the perennial tear-stained patriotic youth.

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