PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
(U.S.S.R.: Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962 (Criterion Collection)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film, the magnificent Ivan’s Childhood (1962), started one of the cinema’s most uncompromising and brilliant directorial careers. This astonishing picture, a critical hit almost from its first screenings, won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, and established the 30-year-old Tarkovsky as a major international art film creator. It’s still a dazzler and a shocker, an anti-war film of jolting intensity, piercing emotion and shimmering lyricism. Called My Name is Ivan (at first) in the U.S., it’s the nightmarish tale of a 12-year-old boy, Ivan (played by 14–year-old Nikolai Burlyaev) who lost his entire family to the Nazi invaders, and now acts as a scout for the Russian partisans, working with the sympathetic Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and the Soviet Army on dangerous missions — forays into enemy territory. This is the account of the pivotal two days in Ivan’s life.
Ivan’s Childhood is not only one of the best of the ’50’s-’60s revisionist Russian war movies — a grouop that included The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, and Fate of a Man — and one of Tarkovsky’s best pictures, it is the precursor of much that followed in his remarkable career. Ivan is his most popular and accessible film, and the one that was most universally acclaimed during his lifetime — despite the fact that it is not necessarily typical of this great, stubborn, obsessive, poetic Russian artist. There are scenes of romantic birch forests and eerie battlegrounds lit with flares and explosions, images as beautiful and haunting as any Tarkovsky later made in gems like the 1966 Andrei Roublev or the 1975 The Mirror. But Ivan’s very accessibility, the fact that it connected so immediately with world audiences, is what sets it apart from his offbeat masterpieces to come: films like Roublev, Solaris, The Mirror and The Sacrifice.
The young director of Ivan was strongly influenced by the camera virtuosity and visual coups of director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in their 1957 classic The Cranes are Flying and their poetic 1959 epic Letter Never Sent, but Tarkovsky went even further. Working from original author Vladimir Bogomolov’s script of his popular novella, and collaborating on the final writing with his film school buddy Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (the screenwriter of Andrei Roublev, the writer-director of “Siberiade,” and a cineaste who made it to Hollywood in the ‘80s), Tarkovsky crafted, in the gorgeous, terrifying Ivan’s Childhood, a film of passion, terror and aesthetic bliss.
We remember young Ivan’s face as we remember the faces of the two tragic friends in Shoeshine, of the street kids in Rome: Open City, of the little boy in Bicycle Thieves — of all art film children caught in the crucibles of war and social injustice. Tarkovsky’s portrait of innocence ravaged by war has never lost its force and grace.
Extras: Video appreciation by Vida T. Johnson; interviews with actor Burlyaev and cinematographer Vadim Yusov: Booklet with essays on Ivan’s Childhood by Diana Iordanova and Tarkovsky, and a poem, “Ivan’s Willow,” by Andrei’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky.