The Ascent (Day 81)

The Ascent PosterMy Opinion: 8.8 || Very powerful movie. Starts well and just keeps getting better. Deserves to be high on anyone’s list of great films about war, courage, and sacrifice (and deep, deep cold).

TITLE: The Ascent (Voskhozhdeniye)
DIRECTOR: Larisa Shepitko
LANGUAGE: Russian | COUNTRY: Russia21
YEAR: 1977
PROFILE: War Drama | 111 minutes | IMDb (8.2)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): Two Soviet partisans depart their starving band on a short march to a nearby farm to get supplies. The Germans have reached the farm first, so the pair must go on a journey deep into occupied territory, a voyage that will also take them deep into their souls.

Strengths: There are touches of deft lyricism in the direction here, but the outstanding feature is a clear-eyed naturalness. The story just seems to happen. It’s a carefully constructed story, with the moral scales weighed carefully, but there’s a striking freedom of contrivance. The director Larisa Shepitko has potent ideas she wants to present and moral themes she wants to explore, but she’s too skilled to slip into didacticism. We’re enveloped not lectured to.

Weaknesses: The conclusion isn’t quite as strong as what’s come before. In some stories, the ending is so right that it seems everything has been building to it. Other times, you get the sense that the story’s real raison d’être has already come and gone — that you’re seeing an ending rather than a culmination. That’s the feeling here, that Shepitko wasn’t exactly sure of the most fitting way to bring her film to a close. It’s not significant enough to count as a flaw, just slightly anticlimactic.

The Ascent

Characters/Performances: The relationship between the two partisans evolves in a profoundly surprising way, and it’s a brilliant exploration of the thin line between strength and weakness, cowardice and courage. Even in very good movies, we can often see where things are headed, but Shepitko avoids any obvious table-setting. It’s as if she’s capturing uncontrolled events that happen to bring different character traits to the fore.

The secondary characters are every bit as powerful. We have Andrei Tarkovsky’s favorite actor, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, as a chillingly believable villain: an indelible portrait of evil propelled by weakness. Then there’s Lyudmila Polyakova’s fierce, increasingly desperate mother, who may be the movie’s most complicated and compelling character. And then there are the three young victims whose fate is the most haunting — because we’re left to imagine it.

The Ascent

Best Moment: As the climax, we watch a group of condemned prisoners react in unique, striking ways to their impending fate. It becomes clear that Shepitko has led us into a moral and emotional snare, and although the characters all behave differently, we can see ourselves in each of them. When one character attempts to betray a fellow victim else in exchange for freedom, it’s a credible and even sympathetic choice — made even more powerful by the subtle acceptance of the person being forsaken.

File Under: freezing cold, World War Two, snow, Christ imagery, sacrifice, survival