Ivan's Childhood

Ivan's Childhood ★★★

There’s no denying the visual luster and crystalline black & white imagery of the famed Russian classic Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut. Even before the existence of Fellini’s “8½,” Tarkovsky put his camera in flight or lets it glide like a kite, and uses negative camera filter to evocate a surreal dream.

His story is one of orphaned Ivan in World War II during the Nazi invasion into Russia, reiterating the oft movie theme of lost innocence and the patriotic purpose to serve the war effort in some way. Ivan is kept company with Soviet officers inside a bunker – holed up long enough for Tarkovsky to lose visual invention – where there is constant talk about sending Ivan along on a spy mission. Much talk, but not enough is said about the extent of the mission other than to use Ivan as a scout behind enemy lines. Excuse me, I know it’s supposed to be about youth exploitation in war but at least give us some richer context.

Tarkovsky’s stony and impassive film is so much about the abstraction of war that it doesn’t end up saying much on the cultural impact the war had on Russia. I somehow cared not as much for Ivan as I was supposed to, and that’s because as game as young actor Nikolai Burlyayev and despite the sensitive concaves of his face I saw Ivan as… little more than an abstraction. A rehearsed statement of a saintly child but not quite full-rounded human. I did find myself caring about the millions of children that have lived through war time hardships (the ones that Ivan represents).

Ivan’s Childhood has a nightmare beauty in the last reel (but am I supposed to feel beauty during war catastrophe?). Tarkovsky ignites some captivating art that starts with the swamps and continues with cutaways of devastation and Third Reich ruins, all of which qualified the film as worth seeing for me. There’s also a shot of Joseph Goebbels’ corpse that had a vérité deliverance for me. Godspeed too for that final children’s game of tag on a splendorous beach. Ultimately though, I unapologetically see Tarkovsky’s debut as not some kind of artistic monolith but rather as a supplement addendum to other more penetrating war films.

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