English Title: Ivan’s Childhood
Original Title: Ivanovo detstvo
Country: Soviet Union
Language: Russian, German
Genre: Drama, War
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
based on the novella IVAN by Vladimir Bogomolov
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
Tarkovsky’s legitimate first feature film, IVAN’S CHILDHOOD walked off with the Golden Lion in Venice, an honor shared with Valerio Zurlini’s FAMILY PORTRAIT (1962). At the age of 30, Tarkovsky extraordinarily implements his stupefying aesthetic tack to the hilt, the film can sweep any new audience off their feet tout court, and sends out a biting anti-war message with soul-pulverizing poignancy.
WWII, Eastern front, our hero is a 12-year-old scrawny Russian boy Ivan (Burlyaev), who is left bereft and hell-bent in his reconnaissance vocation urged by an inexorable impulse of avenging, the front-line is not a place for child, Colonel Gryaznov (Grinko) intends to send him to a military school (and adopt him when the war is over), but Ivan is already a fearless soldier in defiance of his gaunt figure, after having prematurely experienced a baptism of fire out of man-made atrocity, which entirely traumatizes his child-like innocence, there is no propaganda whitewashing in his characterization, he is brusque to his senior comrades, reckless in his intent to stay on, and holds a skeptical world-view jarringly incommensurate with his age. That is what war can afflict an innocent child, changes him into an anomaly.
Ivan is pestered by dreams of his past, the ephemeral peaceful time with his mother (Tarkovsky’s wife Irina) and his younger sister, both perished along with his father. Mesmerizing shots and distinct compositions bombard audience in glut: a slam-bang swooping take strafing not far off his mother; the diagonal angle is scintillatingly deployed to eviscerate the shambolic and dilapidated state of affairs; a striking framing gimmick magnificently transpires when Ivan and his mother gaping into a well, and the camera looks towards them from under, which generates an ineffably magical vision contends to be the tenderest moment in this war-torn living hell. Also unforgettable is the camerawork’s sublime attribute of foregrounding its close-ups and often pensive portraiture, which plays up the supreme chiaroscuro, second to none in its expressiveness and legerdemain, like the haunting imagery of the marshland during the last mission of Ivan and his companions, the young Lieutenant Galtsev (Zharikov) and Captain Kholin (Zubkov).
Tarkovsky doesn’t even for once, avail himself of point-blank combat – the modus operandi of warfare movies to grant a direct outlook of thrill and terror, because in his insightful and humanistic philosophy, a more horrifying and excruciating scourge is the pervading trepidation hovering around before the blood-letting, it gnaws under one’s skin but downright ineradicable, and progressively it becomes inimical to the soundness of mind. The plot is being expectedly downplayed in favor of its atmospheric richness. The sub-plot digression into Kholin’s imprudent flirtation with a young army nurse Marsha (Malyavia) conveys a faint discomfiture of carpe diem expedient, a knock-on aftermath under such extreme circumstances.
Ivan never reaches his adulthood, all he has is a stunted childhood that he could only embrace during his slumbers, Burlyaev remarkably liberates Ivan’s unceremonious singularity with both acerbity and compassion, and, it goes without saying, everyone looks more stylishly stark under Tarkovsky’s exquisite mise-en-scène.
A ground-breaking feature debut, IVAN’S CHILDHOOD wrestles gallantly with its unsettling subject and takes the risk to corroborate a somewhat inaccessible ideology in contrast with most patriotic offerings of its era, after all, what can a new viewer say after stumbling upon this time-tested masterwork? How many encomiums would suffice? Just to be dazed and amazed!