Movie Series Review: Ivan’s Childhood
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Vladimir Bogomolov, Mikhail Papava
Stars: Nikolay Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Evgeniy Zharikov
Synopsis: In WW2, twelve year old Soviet orphan Ivan Bondarev works for the Soviet army as a scout behind the German lines and strikes a friendship with three sympathetic Soviet officers.
Ivan’s Childhood is the first film covered in our Andrei Tarkovsky Movie Series and it makes for one hell of a start. The film is hearbreakingly beautiful but also a rich human experience. It takes place during the height of World War II but Tarkovsky isn’t interested in war but rather this notion of how war robs children of a childhood. The way Tarkovsky explores lost innocence and love within this arduous event is timeless. The imagery, feelings of anger and hunger for vengeance resonate just as much today as it did back in 1962.
Ivan’s Childhood starts off with a gorgeous dream sequence depicting a memory from Ivan’s (Nikolay Burlyaev) memory bank before we starkly realize that it’s just the past. The current circumstances are darker, dangerous and much different for Ivan. Now orphaned, he’s joined the Russian Army as a scout but his superiors want to send him to Military School. Ivan mostly resists due to his thirst for revenge and because of the bond he’s created with his superiors, there’s a conflict that emerges as to where Ivan should really be.
It’s impressive how much command Tarkovsky depicts in his first major directorial role. The opening sequence, as mentioned, is beautifully shot and immediately supplants the heart of the film. It’s innocent and almost heavenly in it’s cinematography and quintessentially depicts what a childhood should be like, making for a gracious and magical sequence. Then Tarkovsky juxtaposes that with the hefty reality Ivan finds himself in and it’s devastating. Tarkovsky never relents from that kind of focused vision. There’s never a wasted shot or a lost moment. He poetically reminds us that children, a even a generation, were catastrophically effected by this war. His passion creates stirring emotion that ripples from beginning to end and ultimately succeeds at evoking the dream of blissful childhood but also the stark reality that childhood isn’t always innocent and fun.
The effectiveness of the film isn’t just in Tarkovsky’s direction either, but it’s also reflective of the performances. Burlyaev gives arguably the best child performances of all-time. His performance is mature and skillful in expressing his moral dilemma which makes him feel more adult than most adults in the film. Evgeniy Zharikov also gives a riveting performance, which evolves as his character’s relationship with Ivan is further revealed. The final shot of his character is one you’ll remember. And you can’t discuss the performances in Ivan’s Childhood and not mention Valentin Zubkov and Valentina Malyavina. There’s a subplot involving the two that render’s one of the more breathtaking scenes you’ll ever witness on film. Their two characters dance around in this wooded area that Tarkovsky captures immaculately. It’s not just the imagery that makes that scene but also the dynamic between Zubkov and Malyavina, which teeters back and forth wonderfully.
There’s a lot to appreciate here thematically but what makes this film so rich, is not just it’s exploration of a lost childhood but also how Tarkovsky resonates this underlying pathos regarding fatherhood. Ivan is orphaned but the men of this military unit he’s a part of almost become surrogate fathers to Ivan. Tarkovsky supports this notion beautifully with scenes between Ivan and these men and it shows just how much these men adore Ivan. There’s even talk among the men about adopting Ivan after the war. However, Ivan’s thirst for vengeance illuminates a conflict in these men about whether they should keep Ivan on the frontlines or send him to military school, which Ivan wants no part of. We’ll avoid spoilers but let’s just say this fatherly love the unit displays toward Ivan has its positives and its negatives. It’s emotionally potent and perfectly interweaves with Ivan’s flashbacks about his mother and sister, which brings the film full circle regarding the familial ramifications of war.
All that to say, this film is incredible. It’s well directed, well acted, well shot, well scored and almost perfect in every way. As a directorial debut, it really doesn’t get better than this.