Sunday 16 January 2011


(Larissa Shepitko, 1977)

Shepitko was a special, luminous talent. In The Ascent she transforms a seemingly simple tale of the flight, capture, interrogation and execution of some Belarussian partisans during WW2 into a Christian allegory and an investigation of faith. Her two protagonists cleverly represent different worldviews: one grimly determined to survive at any cost, the other arriving at a zen-like acceptance of his imminent death which Shepitko portrays as an almost Christ-like state of spiritual enlightenment.
She combines fine storytelling - the film works, in it's first half at least, as a genre piece, with battle scenes which are brutal and adeptly shot and edited - with superbly incorporated experimentation with sound and image. White noise rises up on the soundtrack at key points, and ambient sound is used similarly, often to signal a moment of spiritual ecstasy or revelation, while she uses a mobile camera often in the first act before opting for more static shots later in the film. The journey taken by the characters is echoed by this stylistic change, and also by a different palette; the first half is blindingly white, snow covering landscapes with dark tiny figures trudging through them. The second half is much darker, mainly interiors, allowing Shepitko to shoot her hero in glowing chiaroscuro as his spirit lightens with death approaching.
She was a filmmaker capable of pure cinematic poetry, as this film makes clear. And yet, her humanism is apparent too, because The Ascent is, as much as anything, incredibly moving. Her characters struggle with their fates, with the moral issues the Nazi occupation confronts them with, and Shepitko addresses most of it in the interrogation scenes, where a Police Inspector takes on each man and reads their characters precisely. He is the horror of collaboration personified, and we see the effect he has as the men and other condemned prisoners discuss their experiences and options in the hours before they will be executed.
That execution scene, when it comes, is an intense, almost unbearable scene of martyrdom and waste.
Shepitko died in a car crash in 1979. The Ascent was the last film she completed before her death.

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