The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Detstvo Gorkogo, the first part of Mark Donskoi’s trilogy about friend Maxim Gorky, the founder of Socialist Realism in literature, recounts the boy’s hectic, impoverished childhood with maternal grandparents, in Nizhii Novgorod (later, Gorky), after his father’s death.
Aleksei Peshkov’s arrival by boat is preceded by two shots: an eternizing one of the Volga River, watched over by the sun in a white-clouded sky but for a single large storm cloud; another, of an irregularly shaped though orderly mass of men moving in something like unison on the shore, singing: Russian workers, the future author’s subject and point of identification. Aleksei’s grandmother, Akulina Ivanovna (Varvara Massalitinova, superb), is loving and nurturing; but Vasili Vasilyevich, his grandfather, is alternately cruel and tender. Grandma teaches Aleksei to stand up to injustice; Grandpa provides occasions for his doing so. Their harsh existence makes some people harsh, others compassionate.
Grigori has been Grandpa’s foreman in the dye works for 37 years. The daily combined assault of heat and chemicals has weakened Grigori’s sight. Eventually he goes blind. Despite Grandma’s pleas, Grandpa tosses out Grigori onto the street, consigning him to homelessness and street beggary. When the dye factory burns down, the Kashirins move and take in a lodger, a socialist whom a family member denounces, consigning him to a prison chain gang. Aleksei keeps observing. A same-named dying crippled boy deepens his love for society’s outcasts.
It is time for Aleksei to leave. (In reality, Grandpa threw him out.) The final image is a rearward long shot of the future Maxim Gorky on a winding road leading him to his destiny. The film ends with this Gorky quotation: “To live—to live—that there may be set free all that is good and human in our hearts and minds.”
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