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TCM Imports - March 2012
Remind Me

Kryla aka Wings

Wings, known as Krylya in its native Soviet Union, was Larisa Shepitko's first theatrical feature, premiering in 1966 and reaching American screens thirty years later. It's a remarkable movie, especially for a directorial debut, swinging gently and confidently between public and private, actuality and memory, sociology and psychology, the objectivity promoted by socialist realism - still the official artistic style of the Soviet bloc - and the subjectivity of a three-dimensional main character whose moods are a complicated blend of yearning and contentment. It also sets forth a nuanced feminist critique of Soviet society, balancing the career accomplishments of a strikingly capable heroine with her longing for deeper gratifications that she has sacrificed for the sake of serving others.

Nadezhda Petrukhina, called Nadya for short, is the forty-something principal of a vocational school in a Russian province. Her days are filled with the little tasks, satisfactions, and irritations that come with the job - signing off on purchases and permissions, preparing for an upcoming student show, disciplining a boy who might be simply mischievous but may really be troubled and even dangerous, and so on. She also has personal issues to deal with. Her daughter, Tanya, has married someone considerably older without her permission, straining relations between them. The man in her life, the director of a local museum, is a nice guy but totally dull. Most poignantly, Nadya is aware that age is catching up with her, and she's starting to wonder if her life of service to others has amounted to a fulfilling life for herself.

Things weren't always so routine and disappointing, especially in the first stage of her career, when she was a celebrated fighter pilot winning medals and decorations in the war. That time now seems distant and irretrievable, and Nadya thinks of it often with affection and regret. In a touching scene at her boyfriend's museum, a group of students pass nearby, asking their guide if the lady pilots in two photographs on display - one is Nadya, of course - are still alive. Jolted to realize that she's become a minor exhibit in a small-time museum, and her boyfriend's museum at that, she abruptly pleads with him to marry her. He declines, leaving her to confront her feelings of diminished selfhood on her own.

Shepitko introduces the themes of memory, loss, and dissatisfaction in the film's early scenes. A conversation between Nadya and her boyfriend reveals her unhappiness about her daughter's marriage, and soon afterward we learn that Tanya was adopted - a fact Nadya has hidden, dreading the day when Tanya might discover it, and greatly relieved when she realizes this wasn't why Tanya suddenly decided to get married. A superbly directed party scene acquaints us with Tanya, her husband Igor, and their mostly young friends, who drink and listen to jazz with a casual enjoyment that Nadya envies but can no longer share; she completely fails to get on Igor's wavelength, even though their ages are not so far apart. The calls of memory and nostalgia show up early in the story as well, and recur throughout the film. At times Nadya's recollections take the form of isolated images, such as the sight of an athlete doing handstands on a high diving board; at other times they are quick narratives, as when Nadya remembers the death of her wartime lover, a pilot named Mitya, in aerial combat; and often they are vague impressions of the liberty and excitement she felt when piloting her plane through the skies, represented visually by expressionistic shots evoking movement, loftiness, and freedom in almost abstract ways. Brief though they are, these fleeting shards of past experience are the psychological spine and poetic heartbeat of this lovely, melancholy film.

Shepitko was well acquainted with provincial life during the Soviet era. She grew up in Ukraine, where she was born in 1938. At age sixteen she moved to Moscow, and in due course she enrolled at the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography, studying with Aleksandr Dovzhenko, the Ukrainian filmmaker who had brilliantly evoked the region's spirit in such inspired dramas as Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930), which combine the everyday details valued by socialist realism with the insight and compassion of a profoundly humanistic artist. Shepitko won prizes at the Leningrad Film Festival and elsewhere with her 1963 diploma film, Heat, about the challenges facing a new agricultural collective on the steppes of Central Asia, where the movie was shot under conditions so taxing that Shepitko got sick and did some of her directing from a stretcher. Wings was her first production for Mosfilm, the leading Soviet studio, followed in 1971 by You and Me, her only color film, and in 1977 by The Ascent, her last picture. She and several crew members died in a car crash near Leningrad in 1979 when she was forty-one years old. They were scouting locations for Farewell, about residents of an island that is due to be evacuated and flooded for a hydroelectric project; it was completed in 1984 by Shepitko's filmmaker husband, Elem Klimov.

Wings and The Ascent are Shepitko's most admired movies, and apart from their spare black-and-white cinematography they seem very dissimilar in subject and tone - the first a soft-spoken psychological drama about a discontented headmistress, the second a relentlessly harsh melodrama about a pair of soldiers hunted down, captured, and tormented by German troops as a freezing Byelorussian winter rages around them. On their deepest levels, however, these films are kindred spirits. One of the peasant fighters in The Ascent will do absolutely anything, up to and including collaboration with the enemy, to survive another day and emerge from the war intact, while the other is haunted by visions and intimations not entirely different from Nadya's fleeting reveries, even though hers are fundamentally psychological and his are clearly spiritual, rooted in his very soul. Shepitko's greatest, deepest interest - the mind and heart that see beyond the everyday, catching glimpses of a reality that exceeds and transcends the ordinary world - was just starting to blossom in her filmmaking when she died. Wings is superbly crafted in every way, from Igor Slabnevich's expressive photography and Roman Ledenyov's subtly stirring music to the marvelously real acting by Maya Bulgakova and an excellent supporting cast. But its most powerful impact arises from the resonance of its essential theme, which is life-affirming, mysterious, and as emotionally rich as anything in the Soviet cinema of its day.

Director: Larisa Shepitko
Producer: V. Maslov
Screenplay: Valentin Ezhov, Natalya Ryazantseva
Cinematographer: Igor Slabnevich
Film Editing: L. Lysenkova
Art Direction: Ivan Plastinkin
Music: Roman Ledenyov
With: Maya Bulgakova (Nadezhda Petrukhina), Zhanna Bolotova (Tanya), Pantelejmon Krymov (Pavel Gavrilovich), Leonid Dyachkov (Mitya Grachov), Vladimir Gorelov (Igor), Yuri Medvedev (Boris Grigoryevich), Nikolai Grabbe (Kostya Shuvalov), Zhanna Aleksandrova (Zinka), Sergey Nikonenko (Sergei Bystryakov), Rimma Nikitina-Markova (Shura), Arkadi Trusov (Morozov), Olga Gobzeva (journalist).

by David Sterritt