Cinema: End of Childhood

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My Name Is Ivan. Swooping like a barn swallow, Ivan soars over the wooded hills to where his mother walks along a sun-dappled road carrying her water pails. "Hear the cuckoo, Mamma," he says. But there is a sharp sound, and the mother falls in the dust . . . Ivan awakens in a ruined barn, cold and crying out in terror.

He runs off into a swamp, the dawn mist floating in tatters through the dead trees. Ivan is a spy. For two years, he has been foraging information behind the Nazi lines, living on scraps and courage. Vengeance sustains him too, for at twelve, gaunt and pale, his whole reason for choosing this frightening life is to make the enemy pay for murdering his family. Arriving finally at a Russian outpost, Ivan (Kolya Burlaiev) is brought before a young lieutenant. He refuses to identify himself, insisting arrogantly that the officer "call up HQ and tell them that Bondarev is here." But after a warm bath, and after he has painstakingly penciled his intelligence report, he falls asleep; the lieutenant tenderly picks him up and puts him in bed.

The rest of this glowing Russian film follows Ivan through the days before his last spy mission. Ivan's dreams of his happy childhood so recently past come back to torture him when he sleeps. And always the dreams end in a moment of nightmare. For the most part, the reality of war is felt only in the occasional crack of a sniper's rifle or the firefly descent of flares, but its effect on Ivan and his comrades shows in their gropings for reassurance from one another. Even Masha, a girl medical officer with eyes like a grey squirrel's, helps in her inarticulate way; in one somberly lovely scene, she shyly lets a captain (Valentin Zubkov) pursue her into a forest of birches as the camera, darting on owl's wings, follows them through the receding halftones of black, grey and silver.

Director Andrei Tarkovsky has mixed daring with poetry in making this film: he shows the Soviet hero as an individual troubled with the doubts and complexities of other humans. True, Tarkovsky's people are all noble, but under their shell of nobility there is a core of honest fear. He also uses Christian symbols in a way new to Soviet films; Western audiences can have but one interpretation for a brief scene showing a wrought-iron cross, the rising sun gleaming behind it, standing silent after a night of shellfire. And the end brings another arresting touch: a bare but unmistakable hint of heaven.