Directors: Andrei Tarkovsky, Eduard Abalov (uncredited)
Screenplay by: Vladimir Bogomolov, Mikhail Papava, Andrey Konchalovskiy (uncredited), Andrei Tarkovsky (uncredited)
Based on a Story by: Vladimir Bogomolov
Starring: Nikolay Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Evgeniy Zharikov, Valentina Malyavina
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Andrei Tarkovsky is a director whose name has become a byword for the kind of 'high-art' cinema that critics tend to love, but your average viewer would gladly distance themselves as far as possible from. I have a hit and miss relationship with that style of filmmaking so you might have thought I would have been hesitant to offer to review his work, currently being remastered and re-released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye. However, I've only actually seen one of Tarkovsky's films before, Andrei Rublev, and that blew me away with its spectacular set pieces and striking cinematography. So I've been desperate to dig further into his oeuvre ever since and practically leapt at the chance to review Ivan's Childhood, Tarkovsky's debut feature and the first of his films to receive the re-release treatment by Curzon Artificial Eye. I'm planning on reviewing the whole set (other than Andrei Rublev due to time constraints and the fact I've already seen it not too long ago), so watch this space.
Ivan's Childhood is set during WWII and tells the story of a 12 year-old orphan, Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev), who works for the Soviet Army as a scout. His size and seeming innocence make him a perfect candidate for the job, so his three pseudo-guardian officers keep him operating as such, despite their misgivings about sending such a young boy out on such dangerous missions. They do try to send him to military school at one point, but Ivan is too determined to allow this. After his mother and sister were killed by the Nazis he spends his nights dreaming of vengeance.
I've heard this is Tarkovsky's most accessible work and, if Andrei Rublev is a good measure of his later films, I can easily believe that. Whereas that was incredibly long (around three hours) and had a rather elusive central plot, Ivan's Childhood is short and fairly straight forward with regards to narrative. You don't have to dig too far to understand what's happening here and what it all means. It's a study of the way war shatters innocence. Ivan's role in this is clear, but we also occasionally follow Masha (Valentina Malyavina), a young doctor's assistant whose innocence is corrupted by the lecherous advances of one of Ivan's 'guardians', Kholin (Valentin Zubkov).
Ivan's Childhood may be more accessible than Tarkovsky's other films, but it's no less finely crafted. The director's handling of mise-en-scène is astonishing, even this early in his career. Shots are framed meticulously and lit in a beautifully low-key way, creating deep contrasts in the monochrome photography. What I was impressed by though, was how, despite the careful composition and striking cinematography, the film still looks natural and feels 'alive', whereas many art house films can be distancing. This is partly due to the rough, dirty surroundings and costumes used here. Much effort has gone to make the settings look and feel 'real'. The performances go a long way to give the film life too. These aren't the stilted, cold portrayals you often get in more pretentious productions, the characters have depth, passion and energy when required.
That's not to say Ivan's Childhood is a lesson in naturalism though. Another impressive aspect of the film is its presentation and integration of regularly occurring fantasy sequences. When Ivan is alone he frequently dreams of happier times with his mother and sister, but these dreams tend to become nightmares as he remembers their shocking fates and craves for revenge. These scenes are imaginatively shot, using plenty of camera movement (something apparent elsewhere in the film too) and some unusual angles. I loved the way the film would subtly shift from reality to imagination too. In one sequence, Ivan is staring at the wall on which a blood spatter and a scratched message of 'avenge me' has appeared, bringing us into his mind. Moments like this are rather unsettling too, giving a bit of a horror film feel to certain moments. There's a sudden shift to the end of the war too, where we are graphically shown the fates of several Nazi officers who have taken their own lives and those of their families.
All in all, it's a true masterpiece that's hard to fault. Other than some bold stylistic touches that only a first time director might be brave enough to attempt, it's hard to imagine this is Tarkosky's debut feature. He seems so in command of his art here already. He carefully controls all of the film's elements to create something mesmerising and powerful. Here's hoping I'll be equally as impressed with the titles to follow.
Ivan's Childhood is out on 27th June on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Curzon Artificial Eye. I saw the DVD version and the film looks and sounds great. The dynamic range is strong for an SD release and there's plenty of detail with little to no damage evident.
There are plenty of special features included too. These include:
- A selected scene commentary with Film Psychoanalyst Mary Wild
- An interview with Evgeniy Zharikov
- An interview with cinematographer Vadim Yusov
- An interview with soundtrack composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
- 36 page booklet
These weren't on the DVD screener I was sent though, so I believe they're exclusive to the Blu-Ray version.