Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Ascent (1977)


The shot that etches the perdurable conflict between man and his environment, worthy of Lean or Kurosawa: two men wearily walk, their figures incontrovertibly linked, their respective postures belying their respective fates while the sequence's psychologically throbbing subtext exhibits an entirely divergent but not the least bit discursive reading. Their trudging in the nightmarish hiemal habitat of Russia displays a subtle, primordial connection to one another against the Brobdingnagian backdrop of the frozen earth of the Byelorussian woods during World War II. Telegraph poles stand, appearing like Russian Orthodox Church crosses in the merciless snowscape. The disorienting close-ups, used with such intense discipline and flawless rationale, poetically drawing the microcosmic national sentiment, sorrowfully illustrating the abhorrence of the devastation visited upon an entire nation. An endless, frightening point-of-view shot in an attic that trenchantly brings one character face-to-face with his fears, almost burking the viewer into submission. An interrogator's diabolic eyes, anagogic apertures into a nearly remorseless truculence—adjusted into something ambiguously poignant much later, magnetically, mesmerically frightening in their vaguely languishing repugnance.

The Ascent is a stark black-and-white transcendental chef-d'oeuvre, an unmistakably refulgent work of art by celebrated Soviet filmmaker Larissa Sheptiko. The film feels related to Dostoevsky's “Prince Myshkin” and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Its spellbinding and palpable Gotterdammerung reaches a numinous culmination as an allegorical telling of the passion and crucifixion of Christ. Based on the novel “Sotnikov,” the name of the protagonist, by Vasili Bykov, the screenplay was co-written by Yuri Klepikov and Sheptiko. That protagonist, Sotnikov, is played by Boris Plotnikov, and the man walking in the unforgiving cold with him is Rybak, played by Vladimir Gostyukhin. They are searching for a village, low on ammunition, and find themselves in the home of a headman. Rybak berates him for betraying the cause of the motherland, aligning with the occupational forces of the Germans. Soon, Sotnikov and Rybak find themselves perilously tracked by a German patrol. Sotnikov is shot in the leg. Fearing that he may be captured, he readies himself to commit suicide, aiming his rifle at his own head, saying aloud that his foes will not take him alive. Eventually, however, they do.

Sotnikov was a mathematics teacher as a civilian; Rybak, a peasant. Plotnikov's performance is achingly intense, volcanically fierce without the least bit of hamminess or falsity. The frenetic gleam in his eyes, referred to by the man who eventually interrogates him (Anatoli Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky's on-screen alter ego) as truly fanatic, speaks volumes. Plotnikov's turn is laden with stunning impetus, leonine and messianic, his character's words sparsely communicating the earnestness that propels his every course of action. Gostyukhin's beautifully textured fear of leaving this world is endowed with the unnerving insularity and terror he imbues in Rybak. Solonitsyn's projection of iniquitous arrogance lacerates the hopes of the viewer, crushingly devastating the psyches of the two partisans. Each major character is performed by an actor whose every gesture, nuance and movement bolsters the multi-layered aggregate veins of The Ascent, their physiognomies implacably articulating the depths thereof.

Sociopolitically, Sheptiko's opus can be partly seen as a blunt reinforcement of the sanctity, not so much of the Soviet regime, but of the Red Army and the countless partisans who fought and perished in the Great Patriotic War. Sotnikov declares himself a special agent for the Red Army, an avowed Bolshevik who joined the party in 1935. Defiantly, he tells the menacing interrogator that he only wished he could have killed more of the defilers of his motherland. Russian nationalists can reflexively point to scenes that reveal Russian peasants visibly repulsed by the turncoat traitors who betrayed the partisans to save themselves.

The cinematography by Vladimir Chukhnov and Pavel Lebeshev is breathtakingly exemplary, aiding Sheptiko with an impeccable black-and-white lighting that casts the events of the grueling story in a hauntingly bleak prism. Sheptiko's compositions are nothing short of awe-inspiring; her camera is always indefective, placed with shattering perfection. Characters are continuously arranged in centrifugally and diametrically arresting configurations, pictorially creating live action paintings that linger with the viewer long after the picture has concluded. Plentiful shots are composed in deliberate ways that echo the paintings of Christ's Passion. Orchestrating a cinematic concerto, Sheptiko's virtuoso command of every aspect of her filmic creation sublimely conveys the insurmountable demiurgic artistry that inescapably draws the eyes of the partaker.

The intimate stages that occupy much of the film's story play not as a simple contrast to the exterior vastness in which the two hunted partisans found themselves, but a statement of soulful corrosiveness, the philosophical battleground between the proud Sotnikov and the practical Rybak. The tight confines of their rooms, including the aforementioned attic, and others, underline the dismal options to be had. Their back-and-forth struggle displays a lyrical rhythm unto itself, with Rybak resorting to blaming Sotnikov for their probably shared fate due to his being wounded.

Steeped in deeply moving Christian symbolism, Sheptiko allows Sotnikov's face to become a veritable portal through which the viewer finds solace and finally inspiration. That face, resembling the prevalently, artistically accepted look of Jesus Christ, allows Plotnikov's Sotnikov to most entirely absorb the fleshly and spiritualist and as the film gracefully reaches its climax, those features are augmented in importance and clarity. Meanwhile, the bleary, weathered face of Gostyukhin's Rybak is glacially transformed into a terrified, ashamed specter of Judas Iscariot, selling out his friend to save his hide. The gulf between Sotnikov and Rybak when confronted by the specter of death, personified by Solonitsyn's horrifying interrogator, is especially tragic in its moral ramifications. Sotnikov's statement to his less nobly-minded friend—“What matters is to stay true to yourself”—finds a more penetrating dimension in this film than any other in which that same line has been uttered. Sotnikov becomes a holistic martyr figure, soaking up the sins of his friends and countrymen like a sponge, and consequently suffering the wrath of the persecutors.

During the film's harrowing apogee, the cinematic lashing Sheptiko administers leaves scar tissue, leveling one's comparatively meager expectations. The titular ascent is of punitive gravity, sensationally delving into the mystical chords of the subconscious. The setting and mise-en-scene indelibly point to Golgotha as the divine afflatus. Playing out like a meditative stations of the cross, the torrid impression of the entirely riveting narrative apex, leaves nothing less than singe marks while allowing the recipient to fully excogitate the corollaries derived from the meticulous enactment of selfless sacrifice. (That sacrifice is represented with a dead lamb earlier in the film. Sacrifice is, on three separate occasions, given considerable treatment as a mortally destructive route, vis-a-vis Rybak, whose redoubtable glances at his potentially ruinous fate act as a cumulative constraining limitation that holds him in ignominious shame, guilt and self-loathing.)

Occasionally, a film is watched and studied, consumed and exhaustively critiqued, that is so wracking, so incontestably jolting, it leaves one pressed against their seat, unable to move, struggling to breathe and vainly trying to hold back tears. This is such a towering piece of cinema, the true weight of which surpasses the best efforts of those groping for an adequate description. The genuinely ineffable potency of this achievement dwarfs the conative words with which one can explain its grim sublimeness.

The Ascent is a film of unquestionable power, weaved with a prodigiousness that is finally nothing less than miraculous. And miraculous in many ways. Never condescending or didactic, the film's ravishingly dualistic portrayal of both the ontic and the otherworldly is overwhelmingly puissant, resulting in nothing less than a searing motion picture experience.

15 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

I am unqualified to leave a meaningful comment on the film as I have not seen it, Alexander, but I would feel ashamed if I moved away from the page without saying something about this passionate journey into the Russian soul.

Like Prince Myshkin you see deeply beyond the surface to the unalloyed truth, and unlike him you are able to relate with clarity and erudition what you have seen. I know this from your recent posts as I have seen both Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre The Wrath of God.

Sam Juliano said...

Excellent comment there Tony, and worthy of both the great subject you have broached and the exemplary essay Alexander has written. I am a huge fan of THE ASCENT and much like Alexander I was numbed and devastated after seeing it. It is one of the greatest of films, and it does indeed capture the Russian soul. I am still processing Alexander's almost miraculous interpretation, and later today will ofeer him a far more comprehensive response. But his excitement is palpable.

Allan Fish said...

Yes, though Alexander should perhaps understand that writing a review that may well be better than the film itself is both the sincerst form of flattery and annoyingly precocious. It makes me want to just take my meagre efforts and toss them into an incinerator. Mater, pass me a match!

Sam Juliano said...

I wouldn't quite go that far Allan. I put you and Alexander in terms of writing ability and passion for all the films in our universe as equals. Which is to say that both of you are utterly brilliant. Alexander's style is to to write longer pieces, but the shorter approach if as eloquent, original and probing as yours, is equally effective.

But Alexander has been on a tear as of late with a number of unforgettable essays on some fascinating films. My response to his ASCENT review is still forthcoming! LOL!!!

Alexander Coleman said...

Aw, you gentlemen are too kind. Thank you very much, Tony, Sam and Allan. Your comments are quite touching, and very "meaningful," as Tony says, even if you have not seen this particular film.

I love Prince Myshkin, Tony--I'm flattered to be compared to him at all, ha.

Sam, I must wholeheartedly thank you for the opportunity to see this film. I will never forget the experience I had from it yesterday evening!

Allan, you've made me laugh and feel moved all at once.

Thank all of you again.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Sam, don't let Allan get down on himself! His reviews are wonderful. :-)

Allan Fish said...

I always get down on myself. You two are not stuck with the problem of overcoming inherent mediocrity on a day to day basis. It takes years of practice to be as talentless as me.

Alexander Coleman said...

Nuts.

;-)

Sam Juliano said...

What are we gonna do with him Alexander? We have another Van Gogh here!

Sam Juliano said...

First off, let me give proper credit. Alexander has noted a few times that I introduced and/or promoted THE ASCENT to him. Truth is, almost two years ago, a BFI PAL VHS was send over from the U.K. from Allan Fish, who had proclaimed the film as a masterpiece. When I watched the tape I was so overwhelmed that for months I actually talked about nothing else and I acted like I was the director of the film! I couldn't do enough research on Ms. Shepitko, and I was morbidly fascinated by her death at a young age in a car accident. The harrowing scenes, the Russian snow, the images that recalled Dreyer, Tarkovsky and Tarr, and the almost unbearable anti-war message which placed the film among the greatest of all-time in that sense. I watched it over several times and the film didn't lose an ounce of its visceral, power and wrenching emotionalism. Knowing of Alexander Coleman's sensibilites and love for truly great cinema, I suspected that the night he had last night would never be forgotten perhaps for the rest of his life. In truth, in a country that boasts Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Doshzenko, Vertov and Tarkovsky, THE ASCENT is one of its nations greatest achievements.
It is comparable in a visual sense with the greatest Czech film of all-time, Vlacil's MARKETA LAZAROVA, which is similarly played out in northern whiteness, replete with danger at every turn and a mysterious beauty.
Shepitko's husband, the director Elem Klimov, is esentially known for one film, the shattering COME AND SEE (1985) a film that is also set in Belarus, and like THE ASCENT it tells the story of the way the war affects people in villages overrun by the Nazis, either on the advance or retreat. And like THE ASCENT, COME AND SEE has strong Biblical parallels, especially the Christ one. They are both stark, disturbing and urgent works of cinema that leave the viewer "breathless."

What I can't shake from Alexander's stupendous reviews are the following phrases and sentences, all of which bring the experience back in full-force:

"trouble breathing"

"holding back tears"

"towering piece of cinema"

"The titular ascent is of punative gravity, sensationally delving into the mystical chords of the subcouncious."

"deeply moving Christian symbolism."

"Sotnikov becomes a holistic martyr figure."

"The film feels related to Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin and Tarkovsky."

"Brobdingnagian (love that reference to Swift there!!!) backdrop.....of frozen earth of the Byelorussian woods during World War II."

"Telegraph poles stand, appearing like Russian Orthodox Church crosses in the merciless snowscape."

Alexander has visualized and conceptualized THE ASCENT in the most astounding way possible.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the extremely kind words, Sam. And you certainly didn't oversell The Ascent; like you, I found myself knocked out by it, and driven to researching Shepitko more and the circumstances of her death, as well as the cinematic effort of her husband.

You're quite right that The Ascent does recall not only Tarkovsky but also Dreyer! This film seems to be impossible to overpraise!

Thank you again, for everything.

Sam Juliano said...

Where's the next review Alexander? C'mon, you're slowing up!!!


LOL, just kidding!

Alexander Coleman said...

Concluding credits come up...

"The End

of The Ascent (review)

But Alexander Coleman will return...

[Shot on location and at Pinewood Studios]"

Christopher said...

Of all your reviews I've read of films I haven't seen, this one makes me want to see the film the most. This sounds overpowering judging by your exquisite review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christopher, it is most certainly a film of shocking power, and most fiercely recommended to all readers of CCC by yours truly.