Krylya/Wings (1966) dir. Larisa Shepitko
Starring: Maya Bulgakova
Guest review by Greg Klymkiw
The romance of war has seldom been so heartbreaking than in the hands of the great Ukrainian-born director Larisa Shepitko who made this first feature after a few short films and studying under the watchful eye of fellow countryman and master film artist Oleksander Dovzhenko. What’s especially bittersweet is that the film is set in a post-war Soviet world where the lead character Nadezhna (Maya Bulgakova) struggles to settle into a life of seeming normalcy and, compared to her career as a fighter pilot, complacency. Now in her fortieth year, she works as a schoolmistress and goes about her daily tasks with professionalism and commitment on the surface, but always yearning and dreaming of the days when she soared above the normal world – touching Heaven, surrounded by the billowy clouds and racing through the air, dipping and swooping like a bird of prey.
Shepitko, part of that breed of Soviet filmmaker that rejected the occasionally overwrought montage-heavy storytelling of the likes of Eisenstein, tells her delicate tale with the same kind of editorial restraint common to her generation. Favouring gorgeously composed tableaus and a stately pace, Shepitko aims her lens at the realism of Nadezhna’s life, but with such a keen eye that the commonplace becomes extraordinary.
And what is it about the “normal” that nags at Shepitko’s central character?
The bottom line is this: The girl just wants to fly high. But alas, it is not to be – Nadezhna’s place in servitude to the Soviet ideal is now in the shaping of minds – youthful minds that live in a peaceful world that cannot even begin to comprehend the horrors of war. Nor are her students (and most others – adults AND children) equipped to fathom the mad, youthful rush accompanying Nadezhna’s idealism which led her into the cockpit of a bomber and into the arms of a fellow high-flyer, a dashing young man who eventually dies in a fireball before her very eyes – an image that haunts her constantly.
Shepitko expertly juxtaposes the romance and tragedy of Nadezhna’s life during the war with a series of poetic flashbacks that always help move the story forward when the drabness of her current existence reaches its nadir. One of the more moving sequences has our protagonist watching as a group of schoolchildren in the local museum are shown a display devoted to her heroism during the war. With the love of her life long dead and a schlubish museum director vying for her attentions – Nadezhna’s own life has become a literal and figurative museum piece.
Her daughter Tanya, a ravishing beauty, has married a much older man and Nadezhna can only think of her long-lost lover and how this prissy egghead who cohabits with her progeny can only pale in comparison. While Tanya has married for love, Nadezhna’s lover died for love – not necessarily for romantic love, but for the romantic ideals and love of flying that he shared with her.
With such a pedigree, can anyone ever be good enough for Nadezhna’s daughter?
While Krylya (the Russian word for “Wings”) shares much in common with Dovzhenko and Grigori Chukrai (Ballad of a Soldier), there is a relatively contemporary film, which builds towards a conclusion as soaring and heartbreaking as the one that ends Nadezhna’s story. Werner Herzog’s astounding 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly still can evoke tears when one recalls the final images as the title subject has a dream come true. A similar and extraordinary sequence occurs at the end of Krylya and delivers the kind of impact that only movies can bring when a dream comes true.
In both cases the wish fulfillment is endowed with both elation and heartache.
Shepitko firmly roots her character in a past that seems so far away and yet, truth and redemption are found in the reclamation of that past – albeit a reclamation that embraces the present and includes an acceptance of the future.
Shepitko only made three features following this debut. Her life was tragically cut short in a car accident while on a location scout for what would have been her fifth feature.
Like Nadezhna’s dashing flyboy lover, Shepitko died while doing what she knew and loved best.
Great art and life are never that far apart, are they?
Krylya is available on Criterion's Eclipse DVD label with Shepitko's "The Ascent"