Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Ivan's Childhood (Tarkovsky, 1962)

Anti-war films have traditionally struggled to traverse the narrative minefields generated by their thematic concerns. The nature of their idealism makes it difficult to navigate around material that can so easily lapse into a tedious sermon of maudlin sentiments, misguided politics and/or manipulative moralizing. These pitfalls tend to be best avoided by more original treatments, and Andrei Tarkovsky - a director who so frequently dispensed with traditional conceptions of narrative - would seem an ideal candidate for such a task. His stature as one of cinema's master craftsmen is not unfounded: an ability to encapsulate the depth of the human spirit within sensory feasts of fragmented time, ambiguous sounds and incomparable visual poetry endows him with a genuine claim to the "greatest of all time" moniker. If anyone can tackle the dangers of this emotional-ethical fabric and come out unscathed, it is surely this man.

Understandably, one turns to Ivan's Childhood with high expectations. This is, however, Tarkovsky’s debut feature - and it shows. The director has never flirted so closely with standard narrative etiquette; the "sculpting in time" aesthetic present in only its most primordial form thanks to a number of flashback/fantasy sequences. Although the film is named after him, the scrawny-yet-aggressive Ivan's thirst for vengeance surrenders screentime to both Galtsev (an idealistic and inexperienced lieutenant) and the momentum-sapping Masha (a vapid teenage nurse). The young Tarkovsky ambitiously attempts to paint a multifaceted portrait of wartime frailty, but the resulting fragmentation is swamped by the intensity of Ivan's subjective memorializations, hindering the broadness of his scope.
These reveries also display a worrying penchant for simplifying the complexity of war into the black of the terrifying present, and the white of the remembered past. Such bold delineations are uncharacteristic of Tarkovsky, who would spend the remainder of his career inhabiting much grayer textual areas. Nevertheless, they succeed in externalizing the internal conflicts of a troubled youth, whilst providing the director sufficient space to experiment with his imagery. And what imagery that is! Tarkovsky’s visual genius is apparent in even the earliest of his features, where he plays with the idea of stylistic dualism: the naïve lyricism of Ivan’s memories is set against the expressionistic horrors of the war, and piercing gunshots mark the tenuous borderline between the two. The ensuing antagonism triggers the film’s evolution into a mesmerizing cornucopia of wild kineticism and delirious angles that fight for supremacy over the sensual tranquility offered by the natural world and its maternal comforts - the quieter half of this duality anticipating the director’s later cinematic elegies with its deconstruction of the “Mother Nature” image.

Ivan’s Childhood provides a rare opportunity to witness a great artist threatening to stumble, as Tarkovsky very nearly does at the last hurdle with his problematic decision to intersperse newsreel footage into the text (these images of reality being outweighed in substance by the director's fiction, thereby undermining the integrity of his moral stance). But alas, he recovers, and the film regains its composure with a final sequence that stands as one of the great tributes to innocence lost. The very best anti-war films are those that can communicate their resonance without preaching it. With its poignant conclusion, Ivan's Childhood creates a tragic delusion that tells us everything that we could possibly wish to know about the grave, destructive costs of war by saying nothing direct about the subject in question. By refraining from the obvious, Tarkovsky transcends all genre constraints and lays the foundations for a future that would prove itself to be unrivalled.

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