Ascent, The (1977)

Review #1,226

Director:  Larisa Shepitko
Cast:  Boris Plotnikov, Vladimir Gostyukhin, Sergey Yakovlev
Plot:  In a freezing cold World War II winter, two pro-Soviet partisans - Sotnikov and Rybak - head off to find food for themselves and their compatriots.

Genre:  Drama / War
Awards:  Won Golden Bear, FIPRESCI Prize, OCIC Award and Interfilm Award (Berlin).
Runtime:  111min
Rating:  Unrated - ought to be PG13 for some mature themes
Source:  Mosfilm

“Then go, go on living – without a conscience.  It can be done.”

The Ascent is a masterpiece of world cinema, a rare film made available by the good guys at The Criterion Collection in their Eclipse box set of two works by Larisa Shepitko – the other one is Wings (1966).  It is also one of the finest Soviet films ever made in all of its history.  Shepitko, who died in a tragic accident in 1979 while making Proshchanie that was later completed by her husband Elem Klimov (Come and See, 1985), leaves behind a final work of harrowing power. 

Set in WWII in the Siberian winter, a group of Soviet soldiers and civilians traverse the harsh landscape while being hunted by the Nazis.  As they seek temporary refuge, two soldiers go out to find food.  Instead, they find themselves lost, freezing and starving.  I shall not say any more, except that you should see the film, and experience one of the most devastating and haunting of anti-war pictures that will knock you cold both emotionally and psychologically.

Boris Plotnikov and Vladimir Gostyukhin play the two soldiers Sotnikov and Rybak respectively, giving towering performances that break their characters down into two opposing camps – their ideologies at odds with each other, yet Shepitko's poetic touch makes us empathize with them, rendering a humanized shade of grey in a sea of black (bleakness) and white (coldness).  The supporting characters are also vividly realized with a heavy sense of tragedy. 

The Ascent puts you right there, as if you had traveled back in time as a silent witness to the atrocities, injustice and utter despair that characterized the war, or of any war, really.  The film's cinematic intimacy, as we watch closely but helplessly the events that unfold till its grim end, is contrasted by its overarching themes of betrayal and sacrifice, with clear allusions to Christianity.  The effect is downright haunting, its images permanently etched in the mind.

There is a sequence in The Ascent that sees Rybak pulling the injured Sotnikov in deep snow.  The camera tracks them in close-ups, their immense struggle against nature, not unlike the unforgettable scene in Come and See where the child protagonists had to wade through thick mud.  In sum, Shepitko has made a film that has grown (with more viewership) into a massive work in Soviet cinema.  Very, very highly recommended.

Verdict:  One of the most haunting and harrowing of works centering on WWII, this chilling Soviet masterpiece will knock you cold both emotionally and psychologically.


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