Wednesday, December 24, 2008

THE ASCENT (Larisa Shepitko, 1976, USSR) Two Russian soldiers must decide the price of their own salvation, a decision that will forever define their own brief lives: the temptation to accept life’s warm breath or the cold horror of the hangman’s noose. Director Larisa Shepitko begins the film in the frigid forests of Belarus as a fierce firefight rages between the Partisans and Nazis; she overlays the action with the opening credits which jump starts the narrative, a shocking introduction as women, children, and soldiers retreat across the stark landscape eventually finding respite in the dense woods. Low on ammunition and food, two disparate soldiers volunteer to sneak through the occupied countryside and find relief for their comrades: Rybak is the typical Russian Partisan, tough, physically healthy, practical, his masculine identity never in question while Sotnikov is sickly, gentle, a physical weakling who is more concerned with philosophy, an intellectual factor to this human equation. Shepitko’s film is imbued with Christian mythology, reflected in the Village Elder’s tattered Bible or Sotnikov’s strict morality as he bears the sins of the other prisoners, a burden he carries to the very end. Carl Theodore Dreyer’s influence can be seen in Shepitko’s reliance on the medium and extreme close-up which haunts nearly every frame, shrinking the violent world down into its basic elements: the spiritual abyss that separates the two protagonists. The intimate cinematography creates empathy for each character, a non-judgmental attitude that allows us insight, a rare glimpse into their actions, a brief understanding of their fateful decisions. Shepitko derails the standard genre conventions because it’s the intellectual Sotnikov who proves himself worthy of the Motherland’s loving embrace as Rybak looks upon himself with horror, realizing he can never escape himself, trapped forever in a prison of flesh and blood, a living death. (A)

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