7:4:12 Ivan's Childhood by Tarkovsky

Recently I watched Ivan's Childhood on DVD, the first feature film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky from 1962. Apparently, MOSFILM gave Tarkovsky the chance to resuscitate a movie that had stalled out. Although he stepped into a film begun by another director, Ivan's Childhood has all the signature style of Tarkovsky: the metaphysical poet of images and an explorer of subjective consciousness.

What Tarkovsky shows from the point-of-view of twelve-year-old Ivan is the particular cruelty war visits upon children: a poignant loss of innocence with irony implicit in the film's title.

Tarkovsky explores the dramatic tension of this antiwar premise by interspersing wartime scenes near the Russian front in the Great Patriotic War (WWII) with Ivan's daydreams of an earlier childhood.

[ivan's childhood]

Young Ivan escapes to be among a Russian company at the front. As a volunteer scout, Ivan offers his smallness as less noticeable by Germans. Shot among spartan interiors, swampy birchlands, and unnatural landscape mayhem, the war scenes contrast with the daydream scenes Tarkovsky calls up, giving us Ivan's memory of what war irrevocably took away.

All the innocence of childhood spills forth: slow, gray-tonal shots of the natural beauty that is rural life: bountiful crops, gentle livestock, and, of course, the loved ones of family.

But why does Ivan insist on being at the front in war, fully in harm's way? Tarkovsky shows Ivan has a relentless toughness. Ivan talks back to adult soldiers and is no obedient comrade. Something stronger powers Ivan's quest. More than lost childhood, nothing less than vengeance powers Ivan's true motivation.

As I said, Tarkovsky's mastery in cinema is his ability to bridge objective, expressionist reality (dialogue, gestures, props) and take us into the interior space of subjectivity. Ivan's Childhood succeeds in that way--at a level that invites comparisons with Truffaut's 400 Blows for its masterful evocation of childhood innocence lost.

Tarkovsky is better known in America for Solaris, the "Russian 2001," answering Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece ("Hal, please open the pod door.").

Alas, I watched Kubrick's 2001 recently, also on DVD. While I thought Hal and the technology looked amazingly fresh after 45 years, the storyline seemed thin and more an occasion for pioneering visual effects. This second viewing of 2001 convinced me I had to revisit Tarkovsky's Solaris. Now that's a space film with heft and metaphysical soul!


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