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Review: Restored 'The Ascent' Essential for Fans of Soviet Cinema

by Sam Cohen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 26, 2021
Review: Restored 'The Ascent' Essential for Fans of Soviet Cinema

In the annals of Soviet cinema history, Larisa Shepitko and her husband, Elem Klimov, hold a very special place. They were both filmmakers with strong voices and even stronger visual sensibilities, plus they both successfully made films about the horrors of World War II that were sharp in criticism and able to get past censors. But even though their work shared similarities, the two filmmakers couldn't be more different. Where Elem liked to thrust the viewer into the specificity of pain and trauma, Larisa was able to hold everything at a cold remove and still provoke the deepest emotions.

"The Ascent" signified a filmmaker that was at the height of her powers, showcasing a brutal story that evoked deep spirituality despite its many jabs at Christianity and the absence of a benevolent god. Larisa's death in a tragic car accident left a film unfinished, yet her legacy remained. The Criterion Collection brings "The Ascent" to Blu-ray with a stunning new 4K restoration prepared by Mosfilm, as well as a handful of special features that are well worth your time. If you want to watch rightfully lauded work from the Soviet era of Russian cinema, then look no further than this release.

In the darkest days of World War II, two Soviet partisans are tasked with going to a nearby Belarusian village to scrounge for supplies for their unit of soldiers. Harsh terrain, even harsher weather, and the presence of Nazis make their journey treacherous. And when they're inevitably captured by German forces, they're forced to choose martyrdom or betrayal.

Although I've only seen "The Ascent" from Larisa Sheptiko, it became immediately apparent that although her story is about the harsh realities of World War II, the camera is constantly probing its characters or even divine symbols for an answer to all the horror. But rather than just simply posit that answer as unknowable, the film instead tries to find any truth in the physical world. When the human soul is stripped bare by overwhelming fear, will that evil live on in the people it abused?

There's a wide variety of reasons why "The Ascent" won the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival, but I'd like to think that something this trenchant in its soulfulness amidst war showed the jury the rare beauty found within despair. This release from the Criterion Collection comes highly recommended.

Special features include:

• New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• New selected-scene commentary featuring film scholar Daniel Bird
• New video introduction by Anton Klimov, son of director Larisa Shepitko and filmmaker Elem Klimov
• New interview with actor Lyudmila Polyakova
• "The Homeland of Electricity," a 1967 short film by Shepitko
• "Larisa," a 1980 short film tribute to his late wife by Klimov
• Two documentaries from 2012 about Shepitko's life, work, and relationship with Klimov
• Program from 1999 featuring an interview with Shepitko
• New English subtitle translation
• PLUS: An essay by poet Fanny Howe

"The Ascent" is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

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