Movie Review: Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

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Rating: B+/ The ironic thing about the title of Ivan’s Childhood is that the nightmare twelve-year-old Ivan (Kolya Burlyayev) is living out as he works as a scout for the Soviet army during World War II scarcely counts as a childhood at all. Ivan has had to grow up incredibly quickly following the murder of his family by the Nazis, and for all of us whose childhoods weren’t completely fucked up, it’s sometimes hard to remember that some people aren’t allowed a sense of relative safety and security as they come of age.

Ivan won no wars, claimed no countries, but stories like his, stories of other lost children of war still need to be told. War spares no one who falls in it’s path, not even kids. We like to think that everything has a reason and that the righteous will get out clean in the end, but that’s not always the case. Mostly, war is just dirty; dirty and unjust and cruel. No one knows this better than Ivan. whose sad eyes stare hauntingly out of the screen at the viewer.

When we first meet Ivan, it is in a dream; a twelve-year-old boy innocent of how bad life can get and at peace with nature and himself. Then he wakes up, and we see that the war has taken it’s toll; he looks like an entirely different kid- dirty, disheveled, and haunted by memories he can scarcely put into words. Ivan is fighting for the Soviet Army, putting his diminutive stature and considerable sneakiness to good use as a scout.

The squadron’s captain, Kholin (V. Zubkov,) is considered by Ivan to be like a father figure but is reluctant to adopt the boy after the war. Maybe Ivan just reminds him too much of things he’d rather forget. Captain Kholin coercively pursues quiet beauty Masha (V. Malyavina,) and steadfastly ignores Masha’s insistence that she’s just not that into him. This subplot seems rather out of place and leads to nothing in particular, becoming a distraction. Masha could be excluded entirely from the story and the film wouldn’t suffer from it.

You can tell right away that this film is going to a stunning visual experience. The way it uses striking black-and-white photography with shadows, water, and light makes it one of the most aesthetically beautiful films of all time. You can see just how much concentration and love of the craft went into every single shot. This is filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film, but it could just as easily be his tenth, or twentieth, he clearly knows his way around a video camera. The closest comparison I can think of would be Steve McQueen’s Hunger, both are incredibly self-assured and just look really good despite the directors’ relative newness to the craft.

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The boy actor turns in one of the best performances for someone his age I’ve seen in a long time. He shows an incredible range for a young child, playing Ivan as alternately jaded and world-weary and childish and demanding, juxtaposed with his dreams/memories where he has the carefree quality of a kid whose mind is unburdened by despair. It’s hard to believe he’s just a kid with a regular life (school, hobbies, friends, etc.) playing a part. I think the best performance by a child actor I’ve ever seen is Victoire Thivisol in the French film Ponette, but Koyla Buryayev stands out, especially since he had almost no experience acting in movies before landing this role. I think his modern counterpart would be Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation. Both boys astonish playing kids to whom violence has become a very close companion.

The dizzying cinematography of Ivan’s Childhood makes it a fascinating watch for film enthusiasts, even though the story is fairly unextraordinary. That’s not to say the plot is bad, it has touches of brilliance in that it touches on a tough subject with minimal sentimentality and doesn’t go for a cheap emotional pick-me-up at the film’s resolutely dark conclusion. But we’ve seen this kind of story before, and I was less emotional than I thought I’d be at the resolution. I guess it’s because nothing really surprised me, I figured the story had nowhere to go but down, and down it went, into an abyss that was tragic, but also predictable.

The film held me at more of a aesthetic level than an emotional one, but I’m sure there’s plenty of people who would find it absolutely devastating; it just depends on the person. Ivan’s Childhood looks great, is well-acted, and would probably stand up to a re-watch in a few years’ time. I wasn’t ‘blown away’ but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great movie. Like Terrence Malick’s  Days of Heaven, every frame of this movie is gorgeously rendered; a sumptuous feast for the eyes. I would definitely like to see more from this director; if he could do this well on his first movie, I’d love to see what he did with the rest of his career!

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