Even though neither Wings nor the Ukrainian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko were all that prominent on the broader cultural radar of 1966, this debut film by a young female Soviet director definitely speaks to the emerging debates about the role of women in society that took place in the same year that the National Organization for Women was founded in the USA. Just as the film I most recently reviewed here, Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy, concerned itself with a number of issues and concerns regarding the handed-down understanding of masculinity, so also Wings provides insight into the lives of women who were beginning to move into positions of authority and influence traditionally held by men, though from a much more subtle, reflective and nuanced perspective. While Suzuki goes about his business with a full-frontal sensory assault of male horniness and aggression, Larisa Shepitko, merely in her late twenties at the time of her debut feature film's release, shows an uncommon sensitivity and awareness of the insecurities and social pressures facing not merely "older" women, but practically anybody who has achieved noteworthy success at a relatively youthful age but then has to go on with the rest of their life, wondering what the next act will be that continues to make them as relevant and vital as they've become accustomed to.
Now before I proceed any further, let me just say that this is another one of those posts that won't necessarily go into as much depth on a film as I have in the past. I've already given Wings an extended review and commentary on two separate occasions: first, in my Journey Through the Eclipse Series back in the summer of 2010 (wow, four and a half years ago already!) and also in the early days of the Eclipse Viewer podcast, a couple years later in the third episode I recorded with Robert Nishimura, well before I began my present collaboration with Trevor Berrett on that program. (Re-listening to that episode evoked a certain sense of nostalgia, I must admit...) I have to be candid here and acknowledge that I had more to say about the film on those two occasions than I do at this moment, but I did watch Wings again the other night just to maintain my integrity here. :)
The gist of the film is that it's an extended character study about Nadhezda (Nadya) Petrukhina, a female fighter pilot whose exploits earned her the status of decorated military hero in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's "Great Patriotic War" (which is how the USSR referred to World War II.) At the beginning of the movie, she's just assuming the duties of headmistress of a vocational school for teens, and is immediately faced with a crucial test of her leadership abilities when a pair of disruptive students call her authority into question in a very public setting. Alongside this new set of professional challenges, Nadya is going through some critical passages in her relationship with her daughter, who's promised to marry a man some fifteen or twenty years older than her. And on top of all that, Nadya is simply entering into a phase of midlife doldrums as she begins to question the value and significance of all that she's been pouring her energy into for practically as long as she can remember. It's a remarkable piece of work for a woman who was just embarking on what looked to be a very promising career as a creative artist in what was undeniably a challenging cultural environment. Shepitko was Ukrainian by birth, subject to the authoritarian whims of the central Soviet bureaucracy. But as events in her native land have demonstrated over the past year or two, Ukraine and Russia are two distinctively different parts of the world. With a slightly enhanced awareness of the rift that presumably was lurking between those two societies, artificially conjoined in the USSR's post WWII imperialist expansion, I'm now intrigued to learn more about how Shepitko navigated through the system to the point where she could make a film that did indeed stir up some ripples of approbation from the Soviet censorship boards at that time.
I'm content to let stand all the observations I shared in those earlier reviews - my main takeaway from this week's revisit was mainly just to marvel again at Shepitko's confident assurance in guiding us through a series of very naturalistic scenes of interpersonal exchanges, conflicts and disappointments. Those encounters quietly, gradually build toward a climactic moment of self-actualization and transcendence at the very end of the film - at which point she (almost literally) leaves us hanging in midair as we're basically forced to draw our own conclusion (as speculative as it must be) as to what happened next to the protagonist Nadya. My preference is to think that she exulted in that moment of discovering and reclaiming her freedom soaring through the sky, accomplished at least a provisional resolution of some of the loose ends of her life that sat in disarray before her, and made a good choice to land the plane safely before resuming the responsibilities she'd signed up for and was more than capable of fulfilling. But as the saying goes, your mileage may vary! I admire Shepitko's courage in leaving it all so open-ended for each individual viewer to sort out.
Next: Closely Watched Trains