If the eyes are the window into the soul, what do Ivan’s eyes tell you? Kolya Burlyayev’s immensely expressive eyes are at the center of Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting and ethereal Ivan’s Childhood, a film at least partly about the corrupting influence of war on one boy. Compare the stare above to this one, from one of the film’s many idyllic dream sequences, which flash back to an earlier time, when Ivan was a happy and carefree child living with his mother and sister:
The obvious difference between Ivan in his dreams and Ivan as we know him during World War II serves to accentuate the extent to which Ivan’s “childhood” has been lost — although not entirely forgotten. Throughout the film Ivan evinces a tough exterior that allows him to talk back to his bosses in the Russian military (which he works for, as a kind of spy). This toughness is fueled by a desire for revenge against the people who killed his mother, sister, and, most likely, father. These are not ordinary emotions for a boy his age to feel — and we can see in his haunted expression how much he yearns for those bygone days.
We can also occasionally see it in his actions. Though Ivan is wrestling with very grown-up emotions, he is still only a child, and he craves a parental figure. He finds one in Cpl. Katasonov, a soldier whom he greets with open arms and kisses near the beginning of the film. When the Cpl. is killed in action, the others decline to inform Ivan. It would only demoralize him.
And of course, being a young boy, Ivan is also petulant and even sometimes cruel to the ones he cares about. His desire for revenge is so deep-seated that he refuses to be sent to a military academy, instead opting to run away, which forces the others to go on a search for him. Ivan wants to be on the front lines — but he is still too young to understand how his actions affect others. The soldiers develop a deep affinity for Ivan, but he misreads their genuine attempts to keep him safe as patronizing. Ivan’s constant dreams and flashbacks to a lost youth only seem to motivate him to seek out more and more danger — perhaps Ivan wants to die. Perhaps he does not believe he can die, before he has gotten his revenge.
The film has two major symbolic metaphors. The first is the river, which Ivan and his closest friends in the Russian military must cross in order to get to safety. Ivan crosses another river in the opening frames of the film, and both rivers are swampy, stagnant, filled with the ghosts of trees. Can Ivan cross the river into safety? Does he even want to?
The second visual metaphor would suggest not. There is a hollow tree at which Ivan was meant to meet one of his contacts, but he never made it. Instead he crossed the river. The last image of the film is Ivan chasing his sister on a beach, laughing. He follows her into the water, and then over it — he almost appears to be walking on the surface of the waves. He runs, and the camera follows him, into the hollow of a dead tree. If the ultimate result of Ivan’s revenge is this oblivion, then at least he goes to it willingly — it is, in a sense, something he chose. This is more than his mother, sister, or father could say. It still may not be enough to mitigate the horror of what he experienced, of what the war turned him into. The ending is ambiguous in this regard: Ivan seems happy, but the score is haunting, and the tree menacing — a dark stain on the bright beach.
Ivan’s Childhood is metaphorically rich and visually stunning. It’s not a perfect movie by any means — it feels slightly bloated even at only 95 minutes, mostly because of an extraneous subplot having to do with Masha, a female medic in the Soviet army. Her story is interesting, but distracts from Ivan’s struggle and ultimately doesn’t dovetail too well with the direction of the narrative, nor does it deepen any of the visual metaphors which chart Ivan’s journey.
But there are still moments of lyrical beauty here, and I find myself returning again and again to certain images — and especially those haunted, broken eyes. An excellent film that I highly recommend.
**Note: I watched this one on Hulu, so can’t speak to the Blu Ray packaging or extras on the disc.
NEXT TIME: Spine #336: Dazed and Confused , Dir. Richard Linklater