Seems I’m not completely done with the war genre as I had hoped. I had little to go on before I started The Ascent, but what I’d found in my usual research had been very promising, so even though this was yet another war film, I went into it with a little less trepidation than I had before. I will admit, it took a little while for the film to work itself on me, but once it did, I was genuinely impressed, and left with a mighty fine feeling of satisfaction. It wasn’t as soul-crushingly harrowing as Idi i Smotri, but it was definitely chilly in the right way, and left a similar mark on my being.
In terms of plot, this has somewhat little. Two Soviet soldiers in WWII traipse around the snowy countryside, looking for food for their regiment. They get spotted by a pack of Germans, and try to hide in the home of a mother of three, Demchikha, but are caught along with her and sent to a detainment camp to be interrogated and, in all likelihood, executed. The film was very slow to progress, so the plot summary I’m giving will cover a good chunk of the first half of the film, but it is the second half, that I didn’t go into, that really makes this a must see. The film was an average war film, if not a little more stark and cold than the usual, for much of the first half. Then, we get to the camp, and are introduced to Anatoli Solonitsyn’s character, and the film finally reaches its form; Portnov’s steely gaze and far too calm demeanor are the best kind of unnerving, and though he is in the film for all of three scenes, he was by far the most memorable part of the film. It wasn’t solely Portnov, however, that made the film come together; I can’t really lay my finger on what really did it, aside from the music, but it was as if the film finally decided to pick up all the stray aspects that had been laid in the first part, and bring them all together so that they could form one splendid, cohesive whole. It bothered me that almost all of the moving shots in the first part were captured via handheld camerawork, which turned it into shakycam, and thus took away from a lot of the power of many of the shots, but in the second half, this is all but gone, and the cinematographer suddenly seems to grasp the power of a lingering still image, and uses many of them to great effect. This, coupled with the extremely black-and-white color scheme and foreboding landscape, made for a war film that easily stuck out from the rest of the crowd, and the haunting ending will likely burn itself into your memory.
I was all prepared to dismiss this as just another war film before I even started it, and aside from the cinematography (not including the camera movements) the film’s first section seemed like it would ultimately support this claim. Boy, am I glad I was essentially forced to sit through and watch the rest of this one, because if I’d been allowed to merely stop watching and turn to another flick or go do something else, I would’ve missed out on a real gem here. This is definitely one on my slate of films to watch again at some point in the near future; there seemed to be a lot of little touches that weren’t readily evident on my first viewing, but would reveal their importance and artistry on my next go-around. The director, Larisa Shepitko, would unfortunately die in a car accident two years after this film, which would end up being the capstone to her all-too-short career. But still, man, this would be a heck of a way to finish.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10