An unsettling sense of disconnect permeates The Ascent (1977). Further scrutiny reveals a surprising source for the phenomenon: a simple segregation of black and white. Its first half is situated almost entirely in snow-smothered Belarus, where high-contrast photography figuratively exposes the two divergent strands of morality that will come to dominate the film's psychological canvas. In these initial chapters, Larisa Shepitko shows few qualms in pursuing a partisan approach to her subject matter: this is World War II, where the Soviet populace struggle to survive alongside the malevolent spectre of their German tormentors. It certainly appears as if the director's aesthetics are being used to sculpt a patriotic tale of good vs. evil.
But perhaps inevitably, all is not as it seems in Shepitko's sombre terrain. Although this most basic of dualisms haunts the entirety of her characters' journey, the director's moral examination probes deeper than one might initially suspect. When the German threat physically materializes midway through the film, The Ascent navigates away from the either/or oppositions that have heretofore defined its thematics, and veers into murkier philosophical territory. Shepitko's staging adapts accordingly, substituting panoramic distance for pragmatic intimacy. As her long-shots surrender their filmic prevalence to scrutinizing close-ups, so the scrupulous distinction between black and white blurs into a more fully-formed grayscale palette. The director's grasp of these most basic cinematic tools (distance, colour) cannot be underestimated; her enactment of filmmaking 101 allowing her to maximize the visual effectivity of her disparate scopes. Furthermore, Shepitko pioneers a type of organically metaphysical camera, whose kineticism (or lack of) seems acutely attuned to the temperamental rhythms of the natural world - human subconsciousness included. During particularly nerve-racking moments, her vibrant - and at times violent - camerawork embodies the tenuous relationship forged by the film's most pressing elements: national consciousness (painted with broad, severe strokes) and the individual psyche (more complex, confused).
The Ascent is most alive when exploring the expanses offered by the Belarussian countryside, in which it discovers a brand of lyrical realism that intoxicates the senses. Nevertheless, the film's greatest gift is also its biggest flaw. Shepitko's visual style is ravishing to the point where its absence during the confined spaces of the film's second half is felt all too resolutely by the viewer. Undoubtedly, this is her intent; the transition from agoraphobia to claustrophobia inducing a dissonance that reinforces the inhumanity of the protagonists' incarceration. Yet in opting for such a technique, the director strips away at the imagery that grounds her shamelessly allegorical narrative in authenticity. Without the open spaces in which her camera thrives, The Ascent begins to sag under the weight of its Christian metaphors: this is, in essence, a 20th-century reconceptualization of the Jesus/Judas relationship. Jesus (Sotnikov) is venerated beyond belief, whilst Judas (Rybak) exchanges his integrity for survival - degenerating into delusional paranoia as a result. Has Shepitko therefore duped us? Are her attempts to comprehend the individual/national conscience merely a disguise for yet another dualism (hero vs. villain), this time with a Biblical twist?
To assume as such would require Shepitko to simplify the source that inspired her - and she does anything but. No doubt, her contemporary spin lacks subtlety (Sotnikov-as-Jesus gets Dietrich-esque star lighting, whereas Rybak is outright decried as "Judas!" by an insignificant bystander), but fortunately the director isn't concerned with archetypes so much as she's interested in the spiritual dilemmas that birth them. Lest we forget that all this takes place under the guise of an intense war film, where every breath could potentially be the character's last. As The Ascent takes flight, the friction generated by its oppositional characterizations provokes a reactionary meditation on the director's own existential ethics. What is heroism? Is it compatible with everyday survival? Does patriotism have any value to the individual? Who defines betrayal? What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? Under the umbrella of her conventional plot mechanisms, Larisa Shepitko weaves an intricate parable that asks many questions and searches desperately for their answers. That search may well be in vain, but as the viewer eventually comes over to the realization that it's Judas and not Jesus that we're asked to identify with, Shepitko's sonorous portrait of humanity-in-limbo assumes a resonance that's nothing short of thunderous.