The Ascent

The Ascent ★★★★½

"Don't crawl in shit; you'll never wash it off."

Always spoilers. 

After facing heavy losses against German forces in a subzero Belarusian forest in 1942, a group of beleaguered partisans sends out a two-man party in search of comestibles for the starving civilians whom they are attempting to guide to an unoccupied region. Though Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) are able to requisition what appears to be a lamb from the apparently collaborationist community headman, they are soon detected by a German patrol unit, and a shootout occurs in which Sotnikov is injured and one of the Germans is killed. The desperate search party then prevail upon a local mother of three for protection but are shortly discovered in proto-Inglorious Basterds fashion, whereupon the trio is arrested and transported to a forbidding prison camp.

Girded by his zealous patriotism, Sotnikov endures horrific torture at the behest of former choirmaster turned steely collaborationist interrogator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn, very much resembling a Russian Robert Duvall here) without revealing so much as his name. Meanwhile Rybak—who very much favors living—employs a more cynical tack, revealing as much as he believes his captors already know and in return receiving an offer to join the local police under the aegis of the occupying Germans. Rybak avoids the worst ostensibly (though he ends the film as a pariah in suicidal despair), spared by his betrayal while Sotnikov is executed with a group of prisoners. Overlaid atop the diegesis is an unstated yet pronounced Christ allegory.

Though I haven't seen any of her previous efforts, I have no trouble believing the party line that The Ascent (Восхождение) represents the filmmaking apogee of Ukrainian director Larisa Shepitko because it's a rather stunning accomplishment—made all the more impressive when one considers the fact that it was produced amid dangerously inclement conditions. Further compounding its audacity is its obvious use of religious symbology, which might well have doomed the film to severe editing or suppression altogether were it not for the director's husband arranging a private screening at which an important Belarusian communist official—whose own mother had been hanged by the Germans for abetting the partisans—championed the film before the censors ever got a crack at it.

Some stray notes:
-SEE HOW A GOOD TALK MAKES THE JOURNEY SHORTER?
-PUT THAT BIBLE OF YOURS AWAY
-THAT KIND OF GUEST IS ONLY WELCOME IN A GRAVE
-EVERYTHING ENDS WITH OUR DEATH
-NOW YOU WILL SEE WHAT REAL SCUM IS
-A SIMPLE HUMAN NONENTITY FULL OF ORDINARY SHIT
-I'M THE SOLDIER—YOU'RE A CORPSE

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