Lara Pop’s review published on Letterboxd:
It rarely gets bleaker than The Ascent. Larisa Shepitko's tale of perseverance in the face of imminent death surprised me on several counts. For the first half of the movie, I couldn't figure out the significance of the title. If anything, Shepitko presents its exact opposite. The barren, snow-covered landscape, where death lurks in every grinding step man takes, devours the movie in its all-consuming white death. The shaky camera movement enhances every sound made in the white silence as the camera zooms in on man's face and outlines the thin crust of ice scratching his cheek with its cold tendrils, stretching, reaching, with one goal in mind: to get to the innermost layer: the spirit; and to break it. It is a tableau of a frostbitten feast, an icy infusion of a deathly descent, straight into the vein. I couldn't figure out why I was watching a film named its exact opposite.
In the second half, however, the movie takes an unexpected turn and clears the white fog surrounding its title. Director Shepitko's focus does not stray from depicting the mental descent of the two main characters but is supplemented by the central shift to the symbolic-spiritual connotation their actions and behavior convey. Shepitko contrasts the self-sacrificing, altruistic mindset of Sotnikov with the survivalist worldview of Rybak, and paints an alternative rendition of the biblical Jesus-Judas tale, portraying Judas's betrayal before Christ's crucifixion and his torn consciousness afterwards.
The ending cuts like a double-edged sword. Throughout the film, Rybak/Judas is trying to escape death; in the last frames, however, death beckons him with the promise of salvation his soul so desperately yearns for. But here, unlike in the Bible, he is not able to commit suicide upon learning about Christ's crucifixion but stays trapped in the cage of his own guilty conscience. His last agony-filled scream in the movie reinforces his pain as the camera once again cuts to the white silence descending on the landscape like a shroud upon man's corrupted soul.
The descent of Judas's spirit is counterpoised by the climax: the execution scene which symbolizes Christ's ascension into heaven. Whereas Judas was not able to, Christ finds salvation in death and sees in the blinding whiteness not the foul glow of man's soul but the brilliance of heaven.
All the same, never for a moment be fooled by the misleading hopefulness of The Ascent. Here, hope is but a vehicle for seeing the momentary beacon of light, the precarious bridge which allows passage into heaven. But, as we all know, the bridge is severed ever so easily and man remains but a mere traveller trying to find his way in the all-engulfing whiteness.