On the surface, this film might not seem to offer much enticement for viewing considering its decidedly downbeat subject matter of the effects of war on a child. Surprisingly, quite the opposite is true. Director Andrei Tarkovsky spins a rich tapestry that primarily utilizes the horrors of World War II as a backdrop for this dreamy, at times almost surreal, and exquisitely filmed work of art that is far more notable for its craftsmanship than its narrative. Shockingly, it was Tarkovsky’s debut feature, marking as even more impressive his total mastery of the medium.
Ivan is just a carefree young Russian boy before the war, living an idyllic childhood with his loving mother in the sun-dappled countryside. Tarkovsky cuts back to that time throughout the film, juxtaposing scenes of Ivan’s happy innocence with the feral, hardened soul he becomes during the war. Once war breaks out and Ivan’s mother is killed, he becomes something of a mascot for the Russian army, going on excursions behind enemy lines and moving at will through the friendly Russian encampments. Mostly though, he’s just a survivor, scrabbling for whatever sustenance and shelter he can find.
Meanwhile, the soldiers are seemingly in the dark about their roles and have little leadership; they’re just getting by on the fringes while they wait for a mission and/or death. We don’t really see them in action, just in quiet moments of interaction with each other. Tarkovsky manages to mine those moments for artistry as well, particularly in one scene set in an otherworldly grove of birch trees where a soldier flirts with a woman while the camera pans around in spellbinding fashion. The scene is emblematic of the film as a whole: there’s not much going on in the plot, but the camera work and framing are simply remarkable.
The acting is nothing special, with everyone putting in serviceable performances but ultimately just existing as pawns in Tarkovsky’s grand chess set. Ivan is the most impressive, particularly given his young age, but he also has the best material to work with as he’s faced with running the gamut from carefree youth to desperate urchin. The performances serve the film, but Tarkovsky is seemingly more interested in crafting a work of art than studying characters and brilliantly succeeds thanks to his crew’s technical wizardry. Each frame is worthy of mounting on a wall, and in spite of the dark subject matter the film is thoroughly enlightening.
The restored black and white film has been burnished to a high sheen for this Blu-ray release, with no noticeable defects or artifacting. The soundtrack is uncompressed monaural and demonstrates very little hiss. Bonus features are a bit light but include recent interviews with the actor who played Ivan, the film’s cinematographer, and a film scholar who co-authored a book about Tarkovsky’s films.