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Andrei Tarkovsky gets his first Criterion Blu-ray upgrade...
Criterion / 95 Minutes / 1962 / Unrated / Street Date: January 22, 2013
Andrei Tarkovsky remains an acquired taste and a hit-or-miss one at that. A Berkeley colleague – back in the mid-‘90s – was convinced that as much of a Bergman-head as I was, there was no doubt that I would really respond to Solaris and The Stalker. So he sat me down and popped in Solaris, and I thought it was…okay. There’s no doubt in my mind that the guy was working on all cylinders – aesthetically his films that I’ve seen have been rich and creatively fertile – but watching Solaris just made me think that the guy was a hell of a philosopher but a mishmash of a filmmaker.
Even though typical Tarkovsky elements fly around in his first film, Ivan’s Childhood – new to Blu-ray from Criterion – it’s a bit easier to take than certain of his later films. Solaris is argued by many to stand with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as cinema’s greatest thinking-man’s science fiction film; it exploits its icy narrative to accentuate an equally icy visual format. Ivan’s Childhood, on the other hand, is more of a double-edged sword; it’s either static and dark or fluid and kinetic, depending on the movie’s mood.
The movie follows a young boy during WWII. Ivan’s (Nikolai Burlyaev) childhood is shat upon when German soldiers massacre his parents and he’s left only with his newly-orphaned status and a chance to help fight back. He begs more mature Russian soldiers to give him work on the front lines. Even though he’s just a kid, he is literally willing to do anything now that the cloud of war has taken over his mind. And it’s this duality – the fact that he’s both a juvenile and a willing and able member of a killing army – that fuels Ivan’s Childhood’s filmic mechanisms.
And the results for this non-Tarkovsky fan are mixed. Tarkovsky’s camera movement is a thing of wonder (this film is more Terry Gilliam than Sergei Eisenstein), but the vast majority of the film reeks of all style and no substance. The visual structure is vast and multi-layered, but I had trouble finding the beating heart underneath the cinematic gymnastics. Like much of Scorsese’s recent work, there’s an adept, whizzing liberation that comes with Tarkovsky’s unique style, but ultimately there just doesn’t seem to be much there.
I feel bad panning a film that takes such a firm aim at addressing the status of youth in the war and how they fit in to the overall paradigm of the war’s impact. But although Tarkovsky and team have their hearts and minds in the right place, Ivan’s Childhood remains a hit-and-miss affair, a film that even in terms of Tarkovsky’s own work (love him or hate him) falls short.