Wings  – ★★★★★
Larisa Shepitko was a Soviet film-maker who made only four full-length films (her film Ascent won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival 1977) before her untimely death in a car accident at the age of 41 in 1979. Shepitko’s film Wings tells the story of a decorated ex-pilot of the Red Army during the WWII – Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova) who tries to re-build her life after the war period and faces a number of obstacles. Often day-dreaming about flying, Nadezhda finds it hard to find common ground with her only daughter Tanya, who has recently got engaged, and Nadezhda’s self-sacrificing and domineering approach to schooling means that she is also at odds with the younger generation in a college where she directs, who appear in her eyes to be comparatively self-centered and lacking in meekness. Through the character of one female war veteran, Wings deals bravely with a number of sensitive topics, among which is hidden PTSD, loneliness and isolation in the post-war atmosphere, and the problem of adjusting to the times of peace. Shot with nuance and balance, Wings is a largely forgotten masterpiece that needs to be seen.
Wings was made just three years after Andrei Tarkovsky’s astonishing war debut Ivan’s Childhood (1962), and there are some similarities: the WWII context, the trauma stemming from terrible scenes witnessed, as well as memories mixing with present-day realities. One of the script-writers of Wings was no other than Valentin Yezhov, who co-wrote scripts to such famous Soviet films as Ballad of a Soldier (1959) and White Sun of the Desert (1970).
Larisa Shepitko was too clever a director to portray her central character and the story simply through bold actions and obvious sentimentalism. We uncover Nadezhda Petrukhina’s story unhurriedly and delicately, with lots of nuance. Her personality and true circumstances are revealed through stolen glances, random conversations and her daily interactions with others, especially with students at a college where she works as a headmistress, and Shepitko uses silences and pauses in speech effectively.
Through Nadezhda Petrukhina, the director has a goal show us the face of the Soviet Union after the WWII victory that most people would have wanted to remain hidden: lost, alienated, directionless and full of internal struggles. The director provides a purely feminine perspective on the post-war situation in the Soviet Union: Nadezhda is no longer a pilot, no longer a soldier, but she is also no longer a mother who is needed, and no longer a wife who is loved. To some, she appears merely a “hateful” headmistress, and she feels more and more uncomfortable in this role. Nadezhda feels like a spare tool in one great machine whose parts now work smoothly without her. Nadezhda’s only daughter Tanya now leads a separate life from her mother, and Nadezhda does not understand her daughter’s much older and uncharismatic new suitor. Nadezhda is refused entry to a restaurant without a male partner accompanying her, and is then seen babysitting her neighbour’s small children, while also trying to catch a glimpse of airplanes at a local flying school. She is trying hard to find in others acceptance, whether from a cafeteria worker, a grandmother of one of her students or from a friendly museum director, but no one seems to give her what she is really looking for – true understanding.
The generation gap is another topic prominent in Wings. Nadezhda hardly manages to establish a good connection with either her daughter or her students. Perhaps she sees young people as being too self-centred and lacking in meekness, qualities which contrast sharply with her own values of self-sacrifice and collective responsibility. “Let others deal with your truants in school” says at one point Tanya to her mother, seeing how exhausted the latter is after her day at the school. Nadezhda replies: “Let the others?…I never knew such words…I’ve always done everything for myself…and for the others…(I’ve always done) what was ordered, never questioned (anything) and never regretted a thing”. Maya Bulgakova seems to know instinctively how to convey her character’s inner existential torment. Nadezhda is a steely woman and a born leader, but Bulgakova also manages to convey her character’s inner gentleness and a desire to enjoy small pleasures in life, including laughter. On some level, Bulgakova’s character might have even provided an inspiration for the character of Katerina Tihomirova, an executive director of a factory, from an Academy Award-winning film from the Soviet Union Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears , or an inspiration for the character of woman director Ludmila Kalugina from a Soviet romantic comedy Office Romance . In that film, one powerful woman, who is a director of a big company, finally finds her familial happiness by meeting one of her unassuming employees.
✈️ Wings is not only a deeply moving film, with one unforgettable character study showcasing the war’s long-term, psychological effects, but also a powerful tribute to all Soviet women who fought bravely during the War and struggled in its aftermath.
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Very nice write-up on a great film!
As you say the character of Nadezhda is really feeling like a spare part now, without any role, and lost in the nostalgia of the glorious past which she can never recapture. I love the small detail of how she has now being literally a living museum relic! It says it all about what her past and her life represent now to the younger generation.
Regarding Shepitko’s approach, I think this kind of understated (even slightly Chekhovian) approach to storytelling in 1960s USSR must have been such a bold move away from the more propagandist films of the Stalinist era. It’s a film that feels slight, just a character study rather than very plot-driven, and yet so so rich as that ‘slightness’ washes over us. It’s also a rare instance of a film about a woman’s midlife crisis… There’s so many films about that predicament in men, but not that many about women characters!
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Thank you! Yes, well-noted about the move away from the Stalinist propaganda and lavishness on screen. And, a new approach is clearly evident in the 1960s, probably reflecting and trying to “catch up” with the New Wave of France at that time? Most of those also focused on characters and nuances. Chekhovian, yes. Larisa Shepitko was clearly extremely talented and you are right, Wings is probably one of the best ever character studies on screen I have ever seen. I also think Soviet cinema had plenty of films depicting women’s midlife crises – Office Romance, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, The Woman Who Sings and Vokzal Dlya Dvoikh are just some of the most famous examples, but nothing as deep or “quietly thought-provoking” as Wings and most were made well past the 1960s.
I haven’t seen any of those Soviet films you mention, so thanks for the recommendations! That sounds very interesting indeed. Are those directed by female directors too?
Regarding the 60s, definitely, the USSR had a slight cultural thaw and seems to have had a ‘new wave’ of its own, with as you mentioned Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood one of the significant trendsetters. Very different film to Wings for sure, but both in their own ways were a breath of fresh air at the time.
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