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The Criterion Collection presents
"Are you afraid of me?"
DVD ReviewEven the flimsiest biographical sketch of Larisa Shepitko provokes all sorts of questions—were women given opportunities in the Soviet film industry that still haven't been equaled in the West today? Did she face particular creative and political obstacles, as a woman in a repressive, patriarchal society? How well did she go along to get along? How much did she have to tow the Communist line, and how much creative latitude did she and her fellow filmmakers have? The intrigue about Shepitko can initially be more sociological than aesthetic, which no doubt is unfair—this set comes to DVD not because she was a woman, but because she was talented. And yet this two-disc Eclipse release kind of leaves you hanging. What we get here is Shepitko's first film, and her last one—you can see Criterion living up to the promise of its Eclipse line in bringing a more obscure filmmaker's work to the fore. But Criterion has always had a strong didactic element to it, and its full-boat special editions have as much to do with academia as with the Cineplex. Cannier economic minds than mine, no doubt, reached the conclusion that the market couldn't return the investment on Shepitko special editions, but still, it's a serious frustration with this set that you can learn more about the director from her IMDB entry than you can from this no-frills double feature.
My gripes about the release shouldn't obscure the principal fact: these films really are very good. In the first, Wings, Shepitko is blessed with an extraordinary lead actress—Maya Bulgakova plays Nadezhda, a retired test pilot now running a preparatory school, and the movie is essentially an extended character study. There's a keen sense of loss throughout—her fighter jock days long gone, Nadezhda cannot help but reminisce about them, and it's a movie about how, on both personal and professional levels, the glories of the past can eclipse the present and make it seem small. That's nowhere more acutely felt than in the relationship between Nadezhda and her daughter, Tanya, who's put a lot of distance between herself and her mother—you sense that Nadezhda has a good heart, but that she can't help but be the forbidding mother-in-law, striking fear in the heart of not only Tanya, but her circle of friends.
You can't help but wonder about the parallels between the lead actor and the filmmaker, both women thriving in professions traditionally ceded to men; you also sense that it's a young person's portrait of middle age, and that there are some aspects of the middle of one's life that Shepitko doesn't quite get right. (Each passing birthday makes the difference between youth and the rest of one's life readily apparent to me.) And the very ordinariness of so much of the lives of even the most accomplished in the Khrushchev-era U.S.S.R. makes this film brim with anthropological data, of just how much deprivation was involved in the day-to-day life of Soviet citizens, especially by our standards.
Shepitko's debut is bookended by her final film, The Ascent, made in 1977—she died in a car crash in 1979—and judging only from these two films, it seems that the one of the director's principal preoccupations is the emotional wreckage inflicted by war, along with the physical carnage. This is a lyrical World War II story, of two Byelorussian soldiers separated from their unit—a forbidding Nazi unit stands between them and safety, and they must run the gauntlet. Shepitko displays a keen eye for the natural world—much of the film is set in winter, and you can practically feel the wind whipping through you. The film is made in black and white, and one wonders if this is an aesthetic choice (since so much of our collective memory of the war is this way—cf., Schindler's List), or was borne of economic necessity. You can see how Shepitko has expanded as a storyteller since Wings—she displays fierce tonal control over the material, and the quest element of the story keeps her style from getting overly languorous. You get to the end of the film and realize that it's kind of insulting and ghettoizing to call her a talented female filmmaker—she was a talented filmmaker, period.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The Ascent looks sharper than Wings; in both instances, the source material looks moderately battered, and seems not to have gotten much TLC for this release.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: How is your Russian, comrades? Mono tracks are reasonably static-free, but speakers of Shepitko's tongue may have more issues than I with these transfers.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Box Set
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsA small but compelling sample of the work of a director who died too young; it's a welcome release, but the bare quality of the release is a bit of a disappointment.
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