So apparently there’s something called phenomenology, a philosophy about interpreting things through our bodily senses, and it’s as complex as complex gets. It’s not a philosophy that’s partial to cinema — in fact it was formed without cinema in mind — but has since been used by certain directors to invoke a bodily response to a movie instead of an intellectual one. Andrei Tarkovsky is a facilitator of this, and his first feature length film, Ivan’s Childhood, is actually quite an effective example of these intentions.
The movie has a narrative, but it’s not really its focus. Instead, Tarkovsky uses the narrative as a backdrop for bringing phenomenology to screen, through his characters touching and feeling various objects, walking on the beach with their bare feet, and enjoying the rain and swampy waters instead of avoiding them. I’ll admit that I’m no expert on phenomenology, having only been introduced to it today, but I’m led to believe that Ivan’s Childhood can also be appreciated on a level above that.
The story follows a young Russian boy named Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev), who has lost his parents and now works — unofficially — for the Soviet army as a scout. His gung-ho attitude, small body size, and ability to move across a variety of terrains quietly and swiftly has made him incredibly efficient. Under the care and protection of three Soviet soldiers, Ivan must come to understand his place in the war (World War II) while not giving up on his dream to fight in it.
Burlyaev is stunning as Ivan. It’s not very often that you come across a young actor (he’s probably not even reached puberty yet) who can carry the weight of a heavy feature length movie all by himself. Over the years we’ve probably had prepubescent actors like Shirley Temple, Dakota Fanning, and Haley Joel Osment come close, but to me Burlyaev outshines them all. He’s never short of enthusiasm and anger and never fails to stand up to soldiers who are more than twice his age. There’s a scene where he’s alone in the bunker, looking at messages carved into the walls and ceilings by prisoners of the Germans just before they had been executed. He starts fantasizing and hallucinating, and then he talks to the camera, promising vengeance. His eyes flood with tears. It’s quite remarkable.
But Tarkovsky’s treatment of his material is remarkable as well. He uses a lot of deep focus and most of his scenes are set in deep space, often giving us things to look at in the background as well as in the foreground (I wouldn’t be surprised if Wes Anderson’s highly influenced by him), and many of his shots are beautiful. Sound too plays quite a big part in this film, with many scenes accompanied by a continuous tapping of a tree (as in the part where Kholin is chasing Masha through the forest) or the drip of water (as in the early bunker scenes). Tarkovsky saturates his world with sights and sounds that, I’m assuming, aim to target our senses.
So what is this phenomenology all about? Is it something that anyone can just pick up on when they watch a phenomenological film? How do we even distinguish a phenomenological film? And what are the kinds of reactions we’re supposed to have to them? I’m asking these questions blindly hoping that I will seek out the answers, but as much as I love cinema, I doubt I’ll ever want to come back to this topic. Ivan’s Childhood is an attractively well-made film about Soviet Russia. Lets just leave it at that.
Best Moment | The last scene of Ivan chasing and racing with a girl on the beach. Is this another dream sequence or a flashback? Did Ivan really have a crush before he became embroiled in the war? Nevertheless, it’s nice to see him happy.
Worst Moment | I can’t think of one.