Friday, May 5, 2017
Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)
The Ascent (1977), and it's clear to me how great a loss her death was. That last film was an extraordinary, harrowing adventure with a brilliant documentary realism but also a profound symbolic resonance. Her first is almost a polar opposite: a low-key character study of a woman whose adventures -- she was a decorated pilot during World War II -- are long behind her. Nadezhda Petrukhina (Mayya Bulgakova) now leads a quiet existence as headmistress of a school that prepares students for work in the construction industry. She is admired by her colleagues and students but unfulfilled by her work. She has an adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), but they have grown apart: Nadezhda hasn't even met Tanya's new husband, and when she goes to a party where he's present she mistakenly greets the wrong man as her son-in-law. In addition to supervising repairs at the school and coaching the participants in the school's entry in a theatrical contest, she also has to discipline a rebellious young male student -- with whom, we see, she has a kind of sympathy that is stifled by her official duties. She occasionally sees a man, the director of the local museum where her picture as a war hero is on display -- on a visit to the museum she overhears a girl ask if she's still alive. And occasionally she visits the local airfield to watch cadets being trained. We get a flashback to wartime, when she had a lover, Mitya (Leonid Dyachkov), a fellow pilot whose death in combat she witnessed. Flight, that eternal symbol of freedom, is a strong force even in the earthbound life she leads, and we glimpse her fantasies of soaring through the clouds. So at the film's end, having quit her job, she takes a daring move to achieve that freedom once again. Spare but poetic, with a stunning performance by Bulgakova, Wings was written by Valentin Ezhov and Natalya Ryazantseva and filmed by Igor Slabnevich.