Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wings (1966)

Director: Larisa Shepitko
Country: Soviet Union

I discovered this great hidden gem after finally picking up the Eclipse set which features two works from the great, overlooked Soviet director Larisa Shepitko, whose life was tragically cut short by a car accident in 1979. Even though she left behind a legacy of only four feature films, the talent that she demonstrates in both Wings and the stunning The Ascent is enough to qualify her as one of the greatest female directors in world cinema.

Wings is a fascinating character study which features the renowned actress Maya Bulgakova as school headmistress Nadezhda Petrukhina. Living an at-times painfully mundane life in the confines of classrooms and hallways, she often recalls her former position as a courageous fighter pilot during World War II. As she daydreams of soaring amongst the clouds, you begin to share her desire for more exciting pursuits. As a buttoned-down official, she faces her share of challenges, most notably a delinquent student who constantly defies authority and faces expulsion from the school, but they are mere trifles compared to the all-too-sweet promise of exhilarating freedom that repeatedly haunts her throughout the film. There is even the strong possibility that she sees something of herself, or who she used to be, in the rebellious youth, which keeps her from dismissing his case entirely. Ultimately, her inner conflict invites a serious consideration of age, destiny and belonging, her case that of a passion having grown painfully out of reach.

Wings had a somewhat unexpected, delightful effect on me. Even though it is unquestionably a film bearing the unique vision of its maker, it also reminded me of several other European films that helped make up the worldwide boom in arthouse cinema during the 1960s, namely Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, Chris Marker's La Jetée and Agnès Varda's Cléo From 5 to 7. There was just something about the poetic, semi-documentarian way in which Shepitko shot her scenes and actors, capturing the natural hubub of everyday life, combined with the bold, innovative confidence in her style that reminded me of the great advances narrative film was making during that legendary time (this video, featuring Martin Scorsese, someone who I could listen to talk about film all day, discussing Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse, has also been bouncing around in my brain recently; maybe it had something to do with the association). As a result, I've been revisiting a number of such films since (including 8 1/2, one of my all-time favorites), reminding me of how fruitful this period truly was for the cinematic medium. As a recent second viewing rewardingly confirmed for me, Wings is definitely a film made in the same spirit of creativity, certifying Shepitko's place alongside other Soviet New Wavers such as Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev) and Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying).

This is one film I'll definitely revisit often and cherish in my collection. Inspiring on multiple levels, Wings follows a woman's journey of self-discovery with great style, throwing in sights and sounds of everyday life and tasteful artistic flourishes. Both it and Shepitko easily warrant attention.