Shepitko shows why she was such a promising filmmaker in this charming character study that brings social reality and flights of fancy together through artful naturalism.
Dir. Larisa Shepitko
1966 | Soviet Union | Drama | 85 mins | 1.33:1 | Russian
Not rated (likely to be PG13)
Cast: Mayya Bulgakova, Sergey Nikonenko, Zhanna Bolotova
Plot: A provincial schoolmistress who used to be a famous fighter pilot has so internalised the military ideas of service and obedience that she cannot adjust to life in peacetime.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Eclipse DVD)
Those who have seen the anti-war masterwork that is The Ascent (1977) will attest that Larisa Shepitko should be regarded as one of the finest filmmakers to have emerged from the Soviet Union, but whose life was tragically cut short only two years later in an accident whilst she was shooting her next film.
Wings, technically her first feature outside of school (she graduated from the All-Russian State Institute for Cinematography), shows why she was such a promising filmmaker. It is a charming character study of a woman, Nadezhda (played by Mayya Bulgakova in a nuanced performance), who revels in the glory days as a heroic fighter pilot in WWII. In contrast, her current life as a school headmistress is drab and uninspiring.
At once a work of social reality (not so much the bleak realism of the human condition, but the capture of the times—the mid-‘60s as it were of Soviet society) and a lyrical attempt at dwelling into the mind of a person who continues to long for the past, Wings sees Shepitko using visual techniques that allow for a woman’s physical reality to be inflected by her own psychological reality.
Nadezhda is a woman of few words, but when she does speak her words matter… well inasmuch as her authority matters to the youths under her supervision. One of them, a rebellious boy, is expelled after insulting and hitting a girl in school. The very same girl, who is secretly infatuated with the boy, suffers an emotional breakdown.
The other students are much saner and more disciplined, but one wonders if they care at all about what their headmistress is doing for them and their school. In an ironic scene, Nadezhda goes to check on how her students (due to perform a routine in what seems like an inter-school stage competition) are doing, only to become the lead performer (in disguise) after someone with a bad attitude falls out at the last minute.
Shepitko takes pain to portray the unenthused existence of a woman who has fought for her country, but feels underappreciated, if not neglected by the community at large apart from the cursory acknowledgement by friends and colleagues. Nadezhda seeks solace in her strolls in the nearby airfield, where trainee pilots operate with camaraderie.
Shepitko captures her character’s ennui and juxtaposes it with flights of fancy—quite literally as the camerawork in its artful naturalism gives us beautiful aerial shots to savour, if only momentarily, like Nadezhda’s fleeting memories.