The Ascent

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Voskhozhdenie, the USSR movie from 1977, usually goes by the English title The Ascent, though The Ascension would be semantically and tonally closer to the mark, since this is a war movie done as an allegory for the passion of Jesus Christ.

It’s a “lost patrol” movie. Or, to be strict, a lost patrol of a lost patrol. Larisa Shepitko’s movie starts off among a group of partisans, old folks, sick people and children out in the snow with nothing to eat except the handful of grain they are sharing out among themselves. They are forlorn, adrift, and will soon be dead, unless the two scouts sent out from the group come back with something.

Off Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) set, Rybak the capable, practical and more warmly dressed, Sotnikov coughing, stumbling, without a decent hat and no gloves. They have an almost immediate success – a whole lamb! – but this is followed by a series of setbacks, during which Sotnikov gets shot in the leg and the two men get captured by the Nazis and are interrogated.

Shooting in stark black and white and (mostly) resisting the urge to prettify, Shepitko constructs her story as a series of encounters – with a village elder (Sergey Yakovlev) who’s collaborating, with a mother (Lyudmila Polyakova) and her children, with a waif (Viktoriya Goldentul) Rybak and Sotnikov meet en route, with the interrogator (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who gets stuck into them after they’ve been captured.

Shepitko immediately impresses on even a casual viewer how murderously cold the Russian winter is, the better to set up the arc of her film, which from the physical to the metaphysical. On arcs of their own, the initially unimpressive Sotnikov gradually gains in stature while Rybak diminishes. As the two men hit one bit of trouble after another, the biblical allegory starts to assert itself. Sotnikov, increasingly shot in beatific poses and bathed in holy light, absorbs all the injury and insult thrown at him. Rybak, meanwhile, fights all the way. Starting out as a possible John the Baptist figure, he slides down the rankings until, right near the end, someone explicitly refers to him as Judas.

Sotnikov with Rybak
Sotnikov with comrade Rybak

Plotnikov gives us a particularly meek Jesus: the victim, the big-eyed, the stoic, the sufferer, but then that sort of Jesus has quite a lot of currency in the Orthodox Christian world. Shepitko struggled to get the film made, battling with the Soviet censor over what they perceived (rightly) as its religious content. She argued that what she was presenting wasn’t a crypto-religious screed but a story older than religion itself, one about betrayal. The fact that she could also sell Voskhozhdenie as a tale about the duty a citizen owes to their country didn’t hurt either.

She must have been particularly persuasive, because reading the film as biblical allegory is unavoidable. There are read-acrosses all over the place. I spotted a couple of Judases, a Virgin Mary, a Mary Magdalene and a Pontius Pilate – your mileage may vary.

The acting is, for the most part, intense, occasionally spilling over into the overcooked. The film is more successful in its quieter moments, when it pitches us into the mindset of Russians at the moment during the German invasion when it looked like the Nazis were going to triumph.

Shepitko saves her best moves for the finale, her version of the Crucifixion, when gruesomeness on a grand scale is only emphasised by the focus on a tiny detail here and there. If you’ve not been entirely sold on the film thus far, this might be the bit that convinces.

This was the last film that Shepitko made. She died in a car accident in 1979, leaving behind a six-year-old son and a husband, Elem Klimov, who’d go on to make another astonishing Soviet-era war film, Come and See. Incidentally, both this and Come and See can be watched for free on the Mosfilm YouTube channel, one of the great online resources, and where so many great treasures of the Soviet era can be found, restored and subtitled. Though, when I looked yesterday there was as yet no English subtitling for The Ascent. The fabulous Criterion offering (DVD and Blu-ray) fixes that.

Voskhozhdenie aka The Ascent – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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