By Arun Kumar
After witnessing the hauntingly beautiful works of Ukraine-born Soviet film-maker Larisa Sheptiko for the first time, one can’t help but feel a deep sadness. Because the more you admire her work, the more you are anguished by the fact she perished at the age of 40 (in a car accident in 1979). Most particularly, Sheptiko’s last film, the bone-chilling war drama, The Ascent (1977), was admired in both East and West, and went on to win numerous awards around the globe. Susan Sontag called it the ‘most affecting film about the horror of war’. Sheptiko made four full-length features in her brief career, starting with diploma film, Heat (Znoy, 1963) at the age of 22. Sheptiko graduated in 1963 at the VGIK directors institute in Moscow (Andrei Tarkovsky was few years ahead of her at the same film school) and was a protégé of the great Soviet silent film-maker, Alexander Dovzhenko (Arsenal, Earth). Later, she got married to director Elem Kilmov, who finished the project Sheptiko was last involved in: an adaptation of Valentin Rasputin’s novel, Farewell to Matyora (released in 1983 under the title Farewell). Kilmov also made the disturbing war movie Come and See (1985), a grueling companion piece to his wife’s The Ascent (until his death in 2003, Kilmov didn’t make a movie after Come and See).
Larisa Sheptiko’s second film Wings (Krylya, 1966) possesses the graceful blend of vicious realism and wistful lyricism, a tone that was preceded by the likes of Mikhail Kalatozov (Cranes are Flying) and followed by the likes of Aleksei German (Trial on the Road, My Friend Ivan Lapshin) and Andrey Konchalovsky (Siberiade). Unlike the previous generations of Soviet film-makers, Sheptiko largely eschewed the use of montages and employed in-depth composition and elaborate takes. In Wings, the director was also more concerned with the individual conscience rather than carefully propagating socialist doctrines. Written by Valentin Yezhov and Natalya Ryazantseva, Wings chronicles the existential unrest of 42-year-old Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova) aka Nadya, once a decorated fighter pilot in World War II, but now committed to the dreary job of school head-mistress at a trade school.
This heroic woman’s face adorns the propaganda posters, but she has a difficult time adjusting to boring post-war reality as the dramatic war memories haunt her (she dreams of the days when she flew through the clouds like a winged bird). Apart from being a member of the city council, Nadya’s daily tasks include disciplining rambunctious students and shaping their youthful minds. She silently hates the authoritative position, in punishing students who possesses the same independent spirit she had in her younger fighting days. Adding further to Nadya’s woes is her adopted young daughter Tanya’s (Zhanna Bolotova) estrangement, who has married a 37-year-old intellectual. Nadya awkwardly attempts reconciliation with the daughter and her new husband. The narrative takes place over four or five days, and Nadya often sees herself drawn back to the local airfield from which she flew to combat during the war. It’s the only large space amidst the claustrophobic environs Nadya walks through, which sort of matches the expansive vistas of her nostalgic memories.
Wings relies less on plot and lacks bigger dramatic conflict. The conflict here is personal or existential, which is beautifully expressed through a series of impressive vignettes. This study of generation disconnection and war-induced ennui may not be controversial in the West. But to show a decorated Soviet war veteran in this manner created controversy and resulted in little domestic exposure. Thankfully, the film was made in the ‘Thaw period’ (following the death of Stalin in 1953 and beginning with Khruschev’s radical reconstruction of Soviet cultural perspective, there was unprecedented change in the subject matter and visual style chosen by Soviet film-makers). Wings certainly provided Soviet audience a different kind of protagonist from those previous-era heroes, who staunchly conformed to the Stalinist decrees of socialism. Sheptiko’s central character was much more complex and freed from constantly referencing ideological imperatives. As in many post-war Soviet films, the war plays a crucial point of reference in the narrative, but the director interestingly focuses on the lingering psychological effects of war rather than its idealization.
Larisa Sheptiko’s visual style is absolutely intoxicating. In the movie’s opening sequence, we see a tailor laconically reciting the measurement of a new suit for Nadya. She is fitted inside a tight suit, acknowledging her pivotal position in the Soviet bureaucracy. In few scenes, Nadya tries to loosen her suit while walking through harsh summer heat. This image of Nadezhna struggling with the suit is subtly associated with her daydreams and poetic flashbacks of flying through the milky white sky. It shows how her wings are clipped by her current drab existence. Sheptiko’s another poignant visual touch happens later in the movie when a group of schoolchildren visit a local war museum, where on display are the pictures of war heroes, including Nadezhna’s photo. Nadya observes the students from periphery and one girl asks, if all those in the photo are dead. She literally watches her past life turned into yet another museum piece. Equally mesmerizing is the ambiguous open-ending conclusion, which transcends the sad reality with a ravishing dream-like final shot. Eventually, it is Maya Bulgakov’s phenomenal, baronial performance that remains the film’s robust emotional anchor. Her high cheek-boned face filled with elegance and radiance subtly conveys the sense of longing and loss of Nadezhda Petrukhina.
On the whole, Wings (86 minutes) is a gorgeously visualized observation of war-time heroics that are fossilized and superseded by constantly changing social fabric. It’s also a piercing character study of a staid yet disquieted middle-aged woman, pondering over the universal subjects of identity and lost youth.
Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Moviesand Passion for Books.
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