Monday 18 March 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 38. The Ascent

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Ascent
Director - Larisa Shepitko
Country - Soviet Union
Year - 1977
Runtime - 111 minutes

The Ascent is a transcendental masterpiece in which Director Larisa Shepitko takes us on a spiritual and emotional journey alongside two Soviet partisans who are sent to find food for their squadron in the unforgiving icy wastes of Belarussia during World War Two. Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) is the confident, self-appointed leader of this expedition and Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov), whose physical health is rapidly deteriorating, is an expert marksman and one of the only other soldiers physically able to accompany him on this search for food that the lives of so many others depend upon. Thus begins a powerful and unforgettable catharsis for Rybak and Sotnikov as they encounter abandoned settlements, treacherous Belarusian villagers and raiding Nazi invaders who test their faith and inner strength in this stark and provocative account of a troubling time in Russia's history.

Sparse, snowy landscapes act as a stunning backdrop to this harrowing war film, with the camera lingering over moments of serene beauty before returning to the harsh reality of the protagonists struggle for survival in the bleak cruelty of winter. Handheld cameras place us amongst the soldiers, providing a realistic depiction of their confusion and fear when accosted by Nazis or fleeing through the dangerous terrain. These immersive scenes are balanced adeptly with a range of static shots including heart-wrenching close-ups of characters in immense pain, whose piercing eyes appear to penetrate your very soul as your experience their plight first hand. These stunning images evoke the iconic scenes in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, where Joan's refusal to confess leads to her martyrdom and we witness her unwavering faith that remains until the end. The use of similar close-ups in The Ascent is equally as powerful and disturbing, whilst showcasing bravura performances from the dedicated cast members who give themselves over to the camera in the pursuit of high art.

There are a number of stunning performances in The Ascent; Anatoliy Solonitsyn shines as a cruel translator and interrogator (he is excellent in another notable Soviet war film soon to be featured in this series - Trial on the Road), Sergey Yakovlev is superb as a Soviet turncoat who supports the Nazis and Lyudmila Polyakova is excellent as a doting mother who is inadvertently dragged into the partisans struggle. All of these actors portray their characters with a depth of emotion that bring Shepitko's tale to life in a way that is deeply affecting. However, it is the mesmerising performances from Gostyukhin and Plotnikov as the suffering partisan soldiers that stand out above the rest. These incredibly demanding and challenging roles inevitably required a staggering strength of character to deliver such unforgettable and haunting interpretations of two men pushed to the brink of their sanity. Shepitko actively sought an actor with a close resemblance to Jesus for the role of Sotnikov, and Plotnikov fulfils this requirement, emphasising the religious angle of this stunning parable on the strength of the human spirit.

Music is used sparingly in The Ascent; the howling wind creates an ominous atmosphere adding to the overall sense of unease without the need for an overt soundtrack. When the score does emerge, the brooding doom-laden music builds upon this sense of dread and heightens the growing tension that permeates the film's troubling scenario. One key scene is accompanied with a vibrant circus-like tune that is played by the Nazis during a heinous act and this stark audiovisual juxtaposition is one of many grim sequences that shake you to the core by providing an unbridled view of the cruel horrors of war.

The heavy themes and subject matter of The Ascent are tough to endure but it is a rewarding and eye-opening experience that is rightfully viewed as a landmark film in Soviet cinema. Its exploration of thought-provoking ideas is handled with an artistry that is utterly enthralling whilst also encouraging both introspection and reflection from the attentive viewer who is willing to delve beneath the surface of the film's barbaric storyline. Films as potent as The Ascent are few and far between, and this is a pure cinematic treasure that showcases the immense possibilities of this medium of storytelling. It is a great travesty that Shepitko died in a car crash before she could commence work on her next film but we should feel inspired that her talent was formidable enough prior to her passing to still leave such an indelible mark on the world of cinema.

If you take the time to watch The Ascent then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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