Friday, January 13, 2017

Larisa Shepitko | Крылья (Krylya) (Wings)

flying away
by Douglas Messerli

Valentin Yezhov and Natalya Ryazantseva (writers), Larisa Shepitko (director) Крылья (Krylya) (Wings) / 1966


World War II Soviet fighter pilot Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakovа), now 41, leads a frustrating life in the post-war Soviet bureaucracy. Although she is awarded for her job as a principal at a trade school, some of her students do not appreciate her leadership, and one in particular claims he detests her. Few of them and even her own adopted daughter comprehend  the sacrifices that she and others of the war generation have made for the country and see as still necessary.

       If she is well-known as a wartime hero, many even mock her continued commitment to Soviet society, her involvement on numerous committees and other cultural activities. Her daughter Tanya, recently married, did not even bother to consult with her mother before the wedding, and Nadezhda only meets the groom long after the ceremony. 
       Ukrainian-born director Larisa Shepitko gradually reveals Nadzhda’s pain of being trapped in the stultifying system—as critic Adam Bingham has noted—by both looking at her character and her actions and by following her gaze and witnessing her inner thoughts, spectacularly conveyed from time to time throughout the film by her memories of flying, diving and rolling through the skies. If she has previously made great sacrifices, her life was at least exciting and meaningful, whereas her current dedication is not only unappreciated but merely reiterates the drab world of the Soviet 1960s.

       Much of the greatness of this film, Shepitko’s first feature after graduation from Russia’s State Institute for cinematography, lies in Bulgakova’s performance as Nadezhda. With short, cropped hair and dressed in a striped suit and coat, all of which makes the character seem a bit mannish and authoritative, Bulgakova nonetheless makes it apparent that behind her no-nonsense attitude, she is a woman with a great deal of passion, once in love with fellow flier Mitya, whose plane crashed as she flew with him in formation. More than anything, Bulgakova shows us without the script having her say it, that Nadezhda is hurt by the contemporary world which seems to have lost the high ideals of her generation. While she was once the equal of the men with whom she flew, in this new world she is not even permitted to enter a restaurant without a male companion.

      Just as amazing, moreover, is how the young Shepitko—whose great film, The Ascent, I have reviewed elsewhere—so wonderfully perceives the generational struggles and the disappointment of the course their countrymen and country have taken. Without specifically criticizing Soviet authoritarianism, Shepitko, time and again, makes it clear that things are falling apart and that its citizens have basically given up on their ideals. Nadzhda’s sexless friendship with a local museum director almost parallels Tanya’s seemingly loveless relationship with her new husband. And the hostility of her young student, who is beaten by his father at home, symbolizes a generation that is tired of having to look up to the heroes of the past, which Nadzhda represents. It is not truly she whom he detests, but all of those who seemingly promised a world that never come.

     Every now and then, simply to retrace her life, Nadzhda returns to the local airfield, where the young pilots all greet her, recognizing her as a former flier. In Wings last scene she watches as a couple of small planes take to the air. Another small plane remains on the tarmac, and  when the mens’ attention has been directed elsewhere, Nadzhda clumsily climbs into the pilot’s seat. 
      When the workers see her they jokingly applaud her, and, as they move the plane into the hanger, tell her they will take her on a flight. In fact, as she surely recognizes, they are gently mocking her since it is only a land-based voyage. But as the plane nears the hanger, the engine suddenly comes to life, and the plane turns back to the runway and takes off, the other pilots and workers chasing after it. Nadezhda has found her wings again.

Los Angeles, January 13, 2017

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