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  Ivan's Childhood The Little Soldier
Year: 1962
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars: Nikolay Burleyev, Valentin Zubkov, Evgeniy Zharikov, Stepan Krylov, Nikolay Grinko, Dmitri Mulyetenko, Valentina Malyavina, Irina Tarkovskaya, Andrey Konchalovskiy, Ivan Savkin, Vladimir Varenkov, Vera Miturich
Genre: Drama, WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Ivan (Nikolay Burleyev) dreams of an idyllic time that he has not experienced, where he is out in the countryside and floating through the trees and over the fields, then to make matters all the better he claps his eyes on his mother and settles down to greet her. She is delighted to see him and seems about to tell him she loves him when her expression clouds and she cries out - and then Ivan is awake once more, and the Second World War is drawing to a messy close as there are still Nazi soldiers abroad in the land which the boy has been recruited to scout and spy on. At this moment he has his information and is trying to make it back to his Soviet masters through inhospitable territory, and there is no guarantee he will be welcomed...

Although Ivan's Childhood was not director Andrei Tarkovsky's debut at the helm of his own film, it was the first to garner international recognition that a major new talent had announced himself on the world stage. As with a lot of Soviet era cinema, it took World War II as its setting, and he admitted that not only was he not particularly happy with what he was given to adapt, a short story by Vladimir Bogolonov, but he wasn't too pleased with what he concocted for the screen either, though nobody was a harsher critic of Tarkovsky than himself, and most who saw this would agree there was plenty of worth in it even if his individual technique was in its nascent stage, with plenty of arresting visuals.

Some called this a beautiful film, yet it was not quite that, being too shot through with foreboding and the threat of an ordeal ending even less pleasantly. It was true the director did find his interest in nature paying off as his famed, deceptively placid looking forests and water surfaces were already a big part of his style inasmuch as he was playing with the power such imagery could offer for his type of storytelling. Actually as befitting the desperate times Ivan was existing in, much of his tale was related in stark, moody black and white, which even if the plot was having you less than engaged was a very good reason for keeping your attention; it may have been one of the early works in the canon, but his signature was all over it.

Nevertheless, there are many even among Tarkovsky's aficionados who regard this as a lesser work, possibly because he didn't use three hours to spin his yarn, this was all over with in a neat ninety minutes, or just over. This compact quality was in its favour, as there were a few digressions from the title character's experiences to the partisan officers and troops who he encountered, with the most glaring addition being a lovely young lady called Masha, played by Valentina Malyavina who went on to stardom thanks to this, then abject tragedy as she lost her daughter, became alcoholic, was imprisoned for murder and eventually was blinded in a drunken fall. All that lends a definite poignancy to seeing how beautiful she was here before all that blighted her life, but the fact remained her role here did look like padding.

Ivan, in spite of his name being part of the title, didn’t appear as much as you might have expected, and that "childhood" was not exactly idealised, indeed you could argue it was all in his dreams, which are of his dead family and him interacting with them in often paradise-related scenarios that can turn nightmarish when the reality of the world encroaches in them and jolts him back awake. Though the setting was at the end of the conflict, there was little sense of jubilation stemming from the victory over the Nazis, maybe a relief but also a bone-deep enervation that such an almost overwhelming enormity had to happen at all (be aware stock footage of dead bodies was used in these closing scenes). You could point out that the mere fact of surviving such a global agony was achievement enough in itself, and one presumes that was the message the Soviet authorities would wish you to take away from watching the film, but the whole experience was born of such a heavy heart that you had to hang on to those absorbing pictures to find any motive to persevere with it, should you begin to truly face up to the implications of what you were seeing. Music by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.

[No extras on Curzon's DVD, but the print is restored.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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