Ivan's Childhood (1962)

Review #1,037

Director:  Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast:  Nikolay BurlyaevValentin ZubkovEvgeniy Zharikov
Plot:  During World War II, 12-year old Ivan works as a spy on the eastern front. The small Ivan can cross the German lines unnoticed to collect information. Three Soviet officers try to take care of this boy-child.

Genre:  Drama / War
Awards:  Won Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  84min
Rating:  PG for some mature themes.

Andrei Tarkovsky took over the reins of a troubled production and made it distinctively his own.  In the process, he made his first feature, which then won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival.  He would direct only six more narrative features before passing away way too soon, each a masterpiece in its own right.  I always describe him as the Stanley Kubrick of Russian cinema.  And I think very few would disagree that Tarkovsky belongs to the highest echelons of filmmaking. 

Ivan's Childhood is a powerful film about the loss of childhood innocence as inflicted and affected by war.  It plays out from the point-of-view of Ivan (though not always entirely), who helps to alert the Soviet army of a possible German attack.  He is young and small, perfect to do reconnaissance work for his country without arousing suspicion in the enemy. 

Tarkovsy has always been fascinated by art, poetry, dreams and memories.  These are recurring themes and motifs of his work.  It is then of no surprise to see, in retrospect, Ivan's Childhood beginning and ending with a dream, or perhaps a memory. 

He creates a dreamy atmosphere, at times surreal, at times eerie.  A master of mood, Tarkovsky intercuts dreams/memories with reality.  The dreams/memories show us how life was before WWII – idyllic and peaceful.  Occasionally there are hallucinations, and they show Ivan haunted by the horrors of war. 

The film is for most parts a quiet drama with some outstanding sequences that rely on light, shadow, and movement in difficult environmental conditions.  Of particular note are the scenes involving Ivan treading through a waterlogged and half-burnt woods.

Made during a time when Russian cinema had a post-WWII renaissance, Ivan's Childhood bears thematic similarities to films like The Cranes Are Flying (1957) and Ballad of a Soldier (1959) most of which eschew the grand, patriotic war epic for more intimate, personal stories of children and families affected by the war. 

Tarkovsky's breakthrough first picture is a must-watch.  It is a poetic war film, if there ever was one, bringing to life the psychological impact of war on a boy, yet retaining a sense of timeless but contained beauty of a world that would inevitably be shattered.

Verdict:  A poetic war film, if there ever was one, about the loss of childhood innocence shot in a dreamy style by the legendary Tarkovsky.


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