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BALLAD OF A SOLDIER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko, Antonina Maximova, Yevgeny Urbansky
Director:  Grigori Chukhrai
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Audio Interviews
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  April 30, 2002

“I’ll be back, mama.”

Film ****

Two of the most beautiful scenes in Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier communicate volumes of emotion without the benefit of a spoken word.  They both involve a nineteen-year-old soldier, Alyosha (Ivashov).  One is between him and a lovely traveling companion, Shura (Prokhorenko), who don’t share so much as a kiss, but their eyes tell each other the feelings they will only be able to voice later in their imaginations.  The second involves Alyosha and his mother.  “Let’s talk for a while,” she says, and silence follows, but we know more is being said than words could ever account for.

Made in 1959, Ballad of a Soldier illustrated a new kind of thinking in Soviet cinema, and the results were luminous.  It’s the antithesis of a picture like Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, where war was viewed as heroic and just, and sacrifice as noble.  In Ballad, there is heroism, but of a more sensible kind…and the great price of personal sacrifice isn’t glossed over.

We are told from the opening voiceover that Alyosha is dead.  His mother (Maximova) still waits for him every day by the long dusty road where she last saw him leave.  We are going to learn, according to the narration, the story of Alyosha that not even his mother got a chance to know.

When we first meet him, he is an army signaler in World War II who, more out of fear than anything else, manages the unlikely feat of disabling two enemy tanks.  Offered a medal but asking instead for leave to return to his mother so he can fix her roof for her, his commanding officer grants him six days away from the front:  two to get there, two to get back, and two to fix the roof.  It is more than what Alyosha hoped for, but his commander assures him he will need it.  He turns out to be right…because of the war, schedules aren’t very reliable, people are trying frantically to get from one place to another, and means of travel are hard to come by. 

The rest of the film shows Alyosha away from the war…in other words, as an individual, and not as one soldier among many.  Because of this, we really get to see what kind of man he is…moral, loyal, and good.  He’s one of the most likable characters I’ve ever encountered in the movies.

The film documents his travels, and the people he encounters along the way, each one somehow echoing the sentiment of what war takes away from individuals.  A soldier with an amputated leg almost refuses to return home to his wife out of fear, before Alyosha convinces him otherwise.  He also makes a stop on behalf of a fellow soldier he didn’t even know, to make a present of some soap to his wife.  But when Alyohsa finds the wife unfaithful, despite his lack of time, he takes the soap instead to the soldier’s stricken father, and consoles him with tales of how brave and well-liked is son is in the army.

But the key encounter is with the lovely young Shura, who ends up accompanying him for most of his trip.  She is returning to her fiancé, and Alyosha respects that, although we can see the blossoming feelings of love between them.  It’s a feeling so strong that Alyosha is almost tempted at one point to turn back from his journey home and stay with her…who knows what his life might have been like if he had?

In the end, he makes his destination, but his time is so short that all that’s left for him is a brief, tearfully beautiful moment with his mother before he has to take to the road again, shouting his promise of return.  It’s a promise we know he won’t be able to keep.

The narration wonders like we do what this remarkable young man might have accomplished if not for the war…yet the film makes no judgments on war itself.  It simply takes a closer look, and sees war without the benefit of propaganda or heroic lenses.  It looks beyond armies and sees individuals.  Alyosha may always be remembered as a soldier, because he never had a chance to define himself beyond those perimeters. 

But the movie allows the audience to share a few days with him, and to create a complete picture of him as a man that no individual in his encounters could have completely put together.  It’s the ultimate tribute to one who has sacrificed everything…and if it’s not the kind of tribute that could be readily possible in life, at least it could be perfect in art.

Video ***1/2

This is another triumphant black and white transfer from Criterion, with a surprisingly clean print to boot.  Specks and debris are completely minimal, and unnoticeable most of the time, which is extremely impressive for a film as old as this!  The photography is beautiful and renders with great integrity on DVD.  Images are sharp and detailed throughout, and the scope of blacks to whites and everything in between comes across cleanly and purely.  Only a very minor amount of light grain is apparent against a couple of lighter scenes…these are brief, and not distracting.  All in all, a fine, quality effort.

Audio ***

The mono soundtrack is pleasantly lively and dynamic, with some strong effects here and there and a terrific musical score by Mikhail Ziv.  Dialogue, though in Russian, seems clear and free from interference throughout, and the track is largely noise-free.

Features **

The disc includes about 15 minutes worth of audio interviews with stars Ivashov and Prokhorenko, plus director Chukhrai, which plays out with still image accompaniment.

Summary:

Ballad of a Soldier could be considered not only of the best films to come out of Russia, but one of the best movies of the 1950s, period.  Visually rich and sumptuously photographed, with an appealing cast delivering a script with tremendous heart and power, this one is very much worth seeking out and experiencing.  It’s one you won’t soon forget.