I apologize if the following review doesn’t match up to the artistry of this film. Arthouse-type cinema is something of a new thing for me, starting a couple months back when I watched a couple of Bergman films. I still do not know if I understood everything that was meant in those works like Fanny and Alexander, Cries and Whispers, and Seventh Seal but I eagerly look forward to re-watching them with the anticipation of getting something new out of it that I missed on the first watch.
Keeping this in mind, I still wanted to review Ivan’s Childhood, which is my first Andrei Tarkovsky film. Seems somewhat fitting that my first exposure to this man’s work would be one of his first directorial debuts. Fortunately it was shown on television so I was able to give it a watch.
Ivan’s Childhood is about a young Russian boy named Ivan who works for a unit of soldiers during World War II. He spies on German units and provides valuable intel to the Russian army. We do not realize any of this morose truth at first, however, for our introduction to the child is a happy one. Our first images of Ivan show him running through the forest with a bright smile plastered beneath a set of clear eyes. He is even shirtless – showing us that he is free of all burdens and is merely indulging in his natural childhood innocence. He even interacts with his mother, who is radiant and joyful.
This is, of course, nothing but a dream. He soon wakes back into his grim, war-ravaged reality. He is now weary with skin smeared with grime. His eyes are bright but without spirit. Smiles fail to materialize on his youthful face. He arrives at a battalion where he befriends a group of soldiers as he waits to go behind enemy lines. Many of the soldiers try to persuade him to accept an offer of Military School, as they fear for his safety. But Ivan remains steadfast in his desire to carry out his task, especially if doing so means reaping revenge on the enemy who – it is implied – killed his family.
Phew! Wow. Just writing up that brief synopsis makes me want to rewatch this film.
When compared to Solyaris and its over three-hour runtime, Ivan’s Childhood can seem fairly short (about 1 hour and 40 minutes). Even so, it is still packed with slow, meticulous shots that absorb the viewers into the film. Some people may dislike this and, with my shorter attention span I would understand why, but I appreciate the effect that this technique has to make viewers appreciate the scene as more than a tool for the actor. Films like this and those by Bergman that set up shots in this way give off an almost painterly feel largely because they allow you to revel in the moments instead of inserting quick cuts whenever possible.
Even with the surprisingly simple sets, Tarkovsky creates a very murky and claustrophobic environment. This is not a flashy film by any means, and yet it still manages to showcase striking beauty. There is the scene of a young woman who works for the medical division of the military running through a forrest of birch trees – their white bark almost luminous against the mostly grey backdrop – which gives off a feeling of being trapped. Trees might be, in fact, the most used prop in this movie as Tarkovsky weaves the camera around them, through them, and up and down them as if to maximize their presence.
Still it is the tragedy of a boy’s lost innocence that drives this film. In one scene the child, up until this point so serious and focused, imagines an ambush and acts it out. The dark truth about this is that on one hand he is doing what most boys his age do, namely play war, but then you realize that not only is it far more real for this boy who is actually involved in a war, but that much of this living dream arises from his own hunger for vengeance against those that stole his family away from him. His corrupted nature gives his actions such terrifying subtext that you can’t help but feel your heart break. The only glimpses of pure innocence we get from Ivan come in the form of his dreams, as well as at the very end. I will not spoil it for those who have yet to see this movie, but trust me when I say it is very fitting and will leave you feeling jumbled emotionally.
I will definitely be seeing this film again. Probably will buy it. It is not for everybody, both because it is in the Russian language and it is paced so meticulously, but for those who enjoy these kinds of artsy films, you should definitely check this out. If you are a fan of Bergman be sure to give this a go as well. After all, Bergman referred to Tarkovsky as “the greatest of them all” while Tarkovsky cited three of Bergman’s films in his personal top 10 (Persona, Wild Strawberries, and Winter Light). So…yeah make of that what you choose. Regardless, I personally cannot wait to view more of Tarkovsky’s films in the future.