Monday, November 9, 2009

IVAN'S CHILDHOOD (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962, Soviet Union) Ivan’s brief life is reduced to a cold bloody quagmire; his memories are shrapnel that create a vengeful soldier from the ghost of a child. Director Andrei Tarkovsky examines the intrepid Russian spirit and vicious emotional impact of The Great Patriotic War, refusing to glorify combat and bringing the murderous Nazi occupation into sharp focus upon a few insignificant lives. The film begins as Ivan dreams of his mother’s gracious smile, embraced by her love and floating away…to be rudely awakened in a cold swamp pursued by German soldiers. Ivan is an advanced scout for a group of Partisans because his small size allows him to sneak through the trenches and forests to reconnoiter the enemy forces. Tarkovsky utilizes a non-linear narrative structure replete with flashbacks where we learn that the Nazi aggressors murdered Ivan’s family. This unsettling dichotomy imbues the film with anxiety, fear, and maddening injustice, the true sum of war. Ivan has become tainted by the foul stench of death, a wraith whose only goal is to destroy the enemy. He shows little fear and doggedly disobeys orders to be sent away, and vows to avenge the death of his family and compatriots. In one scene, he keeps reading the final pleas of the damned scrawled upon a wall, a grim reminder that he has matured beyond his years. Tarkovsky shows very little combat, explosions kept to a muffled distant roar, and instead concentrates upon a few soldiers in their dirty and barren hideouts, making small talk and awaiting orders: battle is kept to a vaporous backdrop. This heightens tension and allows the characters room to breathe, however briefly, and transcend caricature. Ivan is missing in action for most of the film though his presence haunts the shadows awaiting his return. A minor love story infuses the film with sadness because this basic human desire still exists in the midst of hell, a human need for companionship that inspires jealousy, but is subdued by impending doom, relationships abandoned like burned tanks upon a battlefield. In one scene, Masha is passionately embraced above a muddy trench, the barren forest like jagged bones half buried in the earth: an apt metaphor. Finally, the story jumps several months (years?) as the Russians storm Berlin, and with the use of stock footage we witness the fall of the Thousand Year Reich. And in one litter strewn room, decorated with ragged nooses and a guillotine, a soldier discovers a dossier with a picture of Ivan, detailing his murder by those vainglorious bastards. But our protagonist lives on in a dream, playing with his family on a deserted beach, seemingly walking upon water…but an ominous decaying tree dominates his deathdream: there is no escaping war’s infernal carnage. (A)

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