Although it shared first prize at Venice (with Valerio Zurlini’s heartrending Family Diary), Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature, perhaps because the script largely predated his involvement and another director started the project, poorly predicts his range of accomplishment. An antiwar film about a 12-year-old orphan who works as a spy for a Russian war attachment by crossing German lines, Ivanovo detstvo is an affecting mess that can’t quite coordinate its prosaic objective shots and its lyrical, poetical subjective ones. Holding the piece together as best he can is the extraordinary young actor who plays Ivan, Nikolai Burlyayev, who would also play the boy who engineers the making of the bell in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966).
One moment at which the film’s poetry works combines objective and subjective elements. In one of many flashbacks, Ivan and his mother are peering down a well. The camera looks upward from down the well; the image of the two persons wavers with the water, and echoing lights upon their voices. The boy reaches down his hand, the image of which the water distorts, and the idea of the “looking glass” of memory is thus introduced, along with the idea of the horrorland, rather than wonderland, of war. Jean Cocteau seems to be lurking in the countryside.
There is more plot here than a Tarkovsky film can handle, and the straight-on war stuff is no better (and perhaps worse) than second-rate.
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