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Ivan's Childhood: The Criterion Collection

Andrei Tarkovsky came of age as a filmmaker at what was, perhaps, the single best moment in time to make films in Russia. With Stalin out of power, the Soviets encouraged new opportunities for expression and experimentation in the arts throughout the 1950s and '60s, and young graduates of the VGIK film school entered the invigorated Moscow film industry armed with a creative freedom that had never before been allowed. For his first feature, 29-year-old Andrei Tarkovsky took on an adaptation of Vladamir Bogolov's novella "Ivan," a project that had already been completed by another director but badly mishandled. The story of a 12-year-old orphan who serves as a reconnaissance operative for the Russian military during WWII, Ivan's Childhood (1962) is a distinctly personal film for the director, who was just a little younger that the picture's protagonist during the war, living with his family in a village in the Kostroma province. Filled with many of the important images (most notably trees and water) that would come to mark his later pictures, the picture was highly acclaimed on its release, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It also earned the praise of Ingmar Bergman, who later said of Tarkovsky's work, "I suddenly found myself before a door to which I had never had the key… a room which I had always wished to penetrate and wherein he felt perfectly at ease. Someone was able to express what I had always wished to say without knowing how." The movie had a strong impact on future filmmakers Sergei Parajanov and Krzysztof Kieslowski, and it helped set a new standard of excellence for Soviet cinema. Ironically, Ivan's Childhood was less well received in Russia upons it's release than it was elsewhere — Nikita Kruschev banned the film, on the grounds that its depiction of a child soldier fighting on the front lines was bad for the Soviet Union's image.

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As with all of Tarkovsky's work, Ivan's Childhood tells much of its story by evoking emotion through poetic imagery, beginning with young Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) dreaming of a warm summer day, and of his mother (Irma Rausch) bringing him a fresh pail of water from which to drink. He awakens to a more brutal reality — he's been on a scouting mission, and he's sneaking back to a military post so that he can deliver his information. The film alternates between Ivan's dreams of sunshine, blooming trees, and his mother and sister, and his dark waking hours spent in dank bunkers and burnt forests, battling with his military contacts to stay on the front lines and avenge the death of his family. His commanding officers, Capt. Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and Lt. Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov) want to send him to the safety of military school, but Ivan has a burning need to be useful, and to maintain the familial attachment he's made with the officers. Throughout the picture, Tarkovsky bends time and location in ways that he would continue to use throughout his career. A tense, sexually-charged attempted seduction by Kholin of a pretty medical assistant (Valentina Malyavina) takes place within a thick grove of birch trees, creating a backdrop of black-and-white geometry that places the moment in a separate dimension from the war raging just yards away. A dream-ride in the back of an overflowing apple cart finds Ivan trying to tempt his sister with an apple as Tarkovsky reverses the negative of the trees in the background, creating a sense of impending doom — the end of this scene, with hundreds of apples spilling out onto the road and horses eating the fruit, is stunningly beautiful. The two extremes of Ivan's childhood — his bright, lively dream-world and his death-laden wartime reality — mirror the two sides of Ivan's personality. He's a petulant child who's lost his childhood, taking on adult responsibilities without the maturity that would have come from normal experience. Tarkovsky, with his cunning use of low camera angles and forced perspective, subtly draws the viewer into the film on an emotional level, creating an atmosphere of subjective entrapment and nihilism, with the movie's final scenes bringing home the horrors of war like a punch to the gut.

The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Ivan's Childhood is a beautiful piece of work, with a lovingly remastered, high-definition full-frame transfer (1.33:1), retaining he original aspect ratio. It's virtually flawless, allowing for an even greater appreciation of Tarkovsky's impressive visuals. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is equally superb (in Russian, with newly translated English subtitles). Extras include a "video appreciation" of Tarkovsky by Vida T. Johnson, co-author of "The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue" (30 min.), and two new interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev, broken up into short chapters with about 11 minutes total material for each. The package includes a booklet containing an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova, new translations by Robert Bird of Tarkofsky's essay "Between Two Films," and a poem by the director's father, Arseny Tarkovsky. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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