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Blu-ray Review: Ivan’s Childhood – The Criterion Collection

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Ivan’s Childhood is the debut film from acclaimed Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, featuring beautiful black and white cinematography by Vadim Yusov. The duo would go on to collaborate on both Andrei Rublev and Solaris.

The Movie

Ivan’s Childhood is an interesting take on the war-film genre, as it frames itself around a young boy as the protagonist, but one who isn’t just a victim of war but an active participant in it.

The viewer’s knowledge of Ivan (Nikolai Burlyaev) is perhaps intentionally slim from the outset. After an opening that is eventually revealed as an idyllic dream sequence, we are suddenly thrust into Ivan’s current world as he trudges through a forested swamp while war rages on in the not-so-distant background. He eventually makes his way to an army outpost, where he tries to convince the officer on duty that he needs to report in to headquarters immediately with urgent information from the front lines. It takes some back and forth, but eventually we find out this is indeed the case, discovering that Ivan has been working with the army as a field scout.

After being orphaned by the war, Ivan seems to have become consumed by it. He rejects offers to be placed in a military school, and insists that his place is helping to fight by way of reconnaissance. He is often tortured by his loss, and the film switches between his present-day efforts and flashbacks that are probably a combination of dreams and memories, often involving his mother. They generally end in distress, and he awakens, once remarking that his nerves are constantly on edge.

The story progresses as Ivan and his fellow officers prepare for another mission. Each in their own way try to paternally protect Ivan, acting somewhere between superiors and big brothers, and even though Ivan has lost everything and those around him attempt to distance him from the battlefield, he seems to regard this lot in life, however grim, as his last semblance of home or belonging. This fractured image of the effects of war is raised elsewhere in the film, in everything from a distraught farmer preparing the ruins of his home for his wife whom he is still convinced is coming back, to a love triangle amongst the enlisted where everyone keeps each other at arm’s length due to the inevitability of their plight.

Ivan’s Childhood is beautiful in its imagery and haunting in its subject matter. Not only does it shine by its firm directorial lead and lush cinematography, but also by its unique story and the commanding performance of the young lead. Its one of the most assured and impressive directorial debuts I’ve seen, and also simply an engaging and memorable war film in its own right.

Video / Audio

This is a first-rate AV presentation all around, and is one of Criterion’s most striking black-and-white releases. Tarkovsky and Yusov have meticulously crafted a film full of rich images and thoughtful transitions, and the results are now immaculately preserved on Blu-ray. Not only is this an incredibly clean print, but stability is fantastic. No artifacts, scratches or anything that would distract the viewer from total immersion is apparent. Grain is natural and filmic, and the quality of the print reveals ample fine detail, immediately evident in the many closeups of the characters Although a couple of special-effects shots reveal the limitations of their day, there is otherwise nothing in the print but a gorgeous black and white film from start to finish.

Although the Russian (and at points, German) LPCM 1.0 audio track is monaural, you would otherwise be hard pressed to pin it as a 50-year-old film simply by listening to it. It is fantastically clean and well balanced, offering a truly impressive presentation in everything from dialogue, environment sounds and music. Coupled with the excellent video transfer, I honestly can’t imagine this film looking or sounding any better.

Bonus Material

“Life As A Dream” (HD, 30:46) is an extended interview session with Tarkovsky scholar Vida T. Johnson, who provides some very interesting background on Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s work in general, and also the climate of Soviet film at the time. It would have been interesting to hear her do a proper commentary track for the film, but even this interview provides a wealth of helpful information.

There are also interview clips with main actor Nikolai Burlyaev (HD, 10:59) and cinematographer Vadim Yusov (HD, 13:27), of which Burlyaev’s comments are the most engaging, offering memories of his interactions with Tarkovsky and the familial spirit on the set. The enclosed booklet contains an essay by Dina Iordanova, an article by Andrei Tarkovsky regarding Ivan, as well as a poem by Tarkovsky’s father with allusions to the film.

Conclusion

It’s hard not to be taken by the visual splendor of Ivan’s Childhood, as scene after scene display striking and wonderfully shot black and white cinematography. But fortunately the film has more to offer than just well-executed shots from a young director trying to prove himself. Ivan’s Childhood is firmly grounded in the setting of a war drama but uniquely incorporates a young protagonist role able to both participate in and reveal the darkness in war’s reach, well beyond just the field of battle. Criterion have given an outstanding Blu-ray treatment to the film, and an interesting, if not robust, collection of extras. Very recommended.

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About David R Perry