Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhrai, 1959)

An unabashed and utterly effective piece of wartime melodrama, Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is a film that surprises us by working in essentially the opposite direction of what we expect. This is a war film with a young soldier as its protagonist that spends only about two minutes of its run-time actually on the battlefield. Early on, we see Alyosha, a private on the front lines improbably elude an onslaught of enemy tanks and then disable two of them with a found piece of weaponry. This is especially remarkable as Alyosha is a mere signalman and not a highly skilled combatant. As a reward, he asks not to be decorated, but rather to be allowed to return home to visit his mother so that he may mend her patched roof. His request is so charming (and perhaps amusing in its innocence) that his commanding officer agrees. Throughout the rest of the film, we watch as Alyosha makes his way home, traveling mostly by train through the land of his birth, and observe the way in which ordinary life has been interrupted.

The true strength of Ballad of a Soldier is the way it makes its point not through overt politics - a tool that was likely not available to Chukhrai at the time – nor through lengthy philosophizing or depictions of grand human misery, but rather through a careful observation of the little things that get interrupted in times of war. A marriage falls apart … new love is not allowed to flourish … those who have no reason to lie do so out of fear. Individually, each of these things may seem like relatively insignificant changes; yet, Chukhrai demonstrates how all of these things are evidence of a rupture in our ability to pursue that which makes us human. It is our right as human beings to be allowed to fall in love, to tend to our home, to hug our mother. In war, these things can become elusive privileges. Ballad of a Soldier unfolds beautifully, getting more and more emotionally involving as it progresses. It does not celebrate war, but does celebrate those who are forced to participate in it. After the film’s first scene, we know (to a certain extent) how the film will end and yet this knowledge does not stop the conclusion from being an absolute heartbreaker. Ballad of a Soldier ends with a variety of matters unresolved, and relationships in disarray and with a simple question for the viewer.




Post a Comment

<< Home