The title of Larisa Shepitko’s film is not apotheosis but the hill near the end; she died in a car wreck.
The Ascent hints at first that it’s about human figures in an unforgiving landscape. War, a safer subject as far as censors were concerned. Russian soldiers, women and children flee Germans through the forests in the winter. People look like blotches of ink on white ground.
Then the movie announces that it’s about:
and how they think, feel and especially signify.
Old Eisenstein had many similar portraits, as he believed in using types, real people playing themselves. Shepitko uses actors and elicits great nuance from them. Anatoli Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky’s favorite actor, has a major role, but mostly the camera focuses on Boris Plotnikov as one Russian solider barefly hanging on to life.
The story, the excuse for the portraits, swings back and forth between various poles: the warring sides, the dying saint vs. worldly sinner, prisoner vs. interrogator, light and dark (especially the final few shots). Drawn from a novel, the tension between the story’s abstract and schematic poles offers a lot of pleasure. But it doesn’t linger as much as dozens of shots like this:
I’d intended just to alternate images of Plotnikov’s face with icons. Shepitko presents him throughout as a consumptive saint, teetering on the brink of death or ecstasy. (And then I’d connect it to my last post, where a few lines can hold all the same emotion.) But while her portraits evoke religious art, I don’t know enough about the use and language of icons to make the connection. They’re prayer-tools. While The Ascent is didactic in its own way, it’s no prayer, just a study of the very corporeal, endlessly fascinating human face.