The Ascent

The Ascent ★★★★★

Wow. An absolutely stunning film.

Two Soviet partisans, Sotnikov and Rybak, journey through harsh, snow-covered, German-occupied territory in search of supplies for their troop, in director Larisa Shepitko's final film. This WWII film features some astonishing cinematography, brilliant performances, and a riveting and emotional story of two men so close to death, it manifests sides of themselves they likely weren't aware existed before.

Shepitko's camera gorgeously photographs the snow-covered forests and landscapes, simultaneously displaying their fragile beauty and harsh, threatening coldness. There are shots in this film that will likely take your breath away. The men's troop disappearing into the forest before your eyes, the discovery of the frozen ruins of a home, Sotnikov sitting against a tree photographed through the icy twigs, the camera staring straight down the barrel of a gun. Even when the film is confined to dark interiors, the camera captures the characters' faces in interesting, even startling, ways.

And each wonderfully photographed scene is made even greater by the performances of the cast. Vladimir Gostyukhin is excellent as Rybak, especially in his wrenching scenes at the very end. Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who some will recognize from many Tarkovsky films, is brilliant in a supporting role. It is Boris Plotnikov, however, who carries this film with a stunning and poignant performance as Sotnikov. His angelic face is so appropriate for his role, and even with few words, he conveys so much depth of emotion through his eyes alone. His is a captivating performance that leads us on this film's gripping spiritual journey into the human soul, a journey that left me speechless.

This was Larisa Shepitko's final film before her tragic death at age 41, and the first of hers that I have seen. I'll be trying to seek out the other films of her short filmography, but based on this film alone, she should be considered among the greatest Russian/Soviet directors. The Ascent is the heart-rending work of a master of the filmmaking craft. It is an under-seen masterpiece.