Back in the USSR


The Gable and Lombard of Soviet moviemaking’s new wave, Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepitko were a gorgeous married couple of uncompromising artists made even more glam by their thorny run-ins with the censorship bureau and by Shepitko’s tragic 1979 death in a car wreck. The film she was making, Farewell to Matyora (1981), was completed by Klimov in a thrashing fit of scarred heartsickness; he would make only one more film, 1986’s terminal Come and See, before declaring himself through with the medium and process that had brought the two restless spirits together. (Klimov died in 2003, at 70.) With only nine embattled features between them, they are wed by more than circumstance—Klimov’s hellacious final work was, in retrospect, rather Shepitkovian, particularly when you consider that he began as an impetuous satirist. His first full-length film, Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964), is a wickedly inventive comedy about “Young Pioneers” summer camps, laced with absurdist imagery (a funeral march shaped like a giant question mark), silent film shenanigans, and a summery élan that compelled an amused Khrushchev to command its release when the studio balked.

Shepitko’s films were graver from the start and seem to have been building up to
Come and See
in a more direct fashion— The Ascent (1976), her last completed film, begins with breathtaking confidence in the Belarusian forests during WWII, among Communist partisans running in the deep snow from Nazis and scrounging desperately for food. Subsumed by icy whiteness, two soldiers on recon confront the wilderness and trade fire with distant patrols; the sense of intractable landscape is monstrous. Then they’re captured, and their tactile odyssey in the wilderness is therein picked over in interrogation and measured against patriotism, partisanship, self-preservation, and even spiritual sanctity.

Farewell to Matyora is, then, something of a fusion of nightmarish sensibilities. Mourning for Shepitko looms over the tale (from Valentin Rasputin’s novel) of peasant women futilely resisting the decimation of their centuries-old Siberian village by the construction of a nearby dam. Of course, the widely celebrated Come and See—a standing affront to all American depictions of war—is a palpable cry of grief, but there’s also Klimov’s short Larisa (1980), a doc comprising photos and film clips that stands beside Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes as the sweetest elegy one filmmaker ever made for the ghost of another.MICHAEL ATKINSON