Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai, 1959)

A more or less unexceptional war/love story that nonetheless got me involved and drew me in.  It’s the remarkably, and maybe unfortunately, simple story of a young Russian soldier who singlehandedly takes out two enemy tanks and is rewarded with a six-day leave to go home and fix the roof of his mother’s house, and the various adventures and misadventures he encounters as he makes his way home.  It’s so simple that it allows the love story that follows to take center stage, at least for a (sadly) little while, but also so simple that the attempts by Chukhrai to build Alyosha up to some kind of mythic level is simply ludicrous.  The opening narration that basically makes our little Alyosha out to be a metaphor for the plight of all armed servicemen and the emotional pain that they cause their loved ones was really, really cringe-worthy, the set-up of the premise is really nothing more than a scene where Alyosha asks his superior if he can go home and his superior says OK – no dramatic or even practical build-up whatsoever, really just plain lazy storytelling – and Alyosha himself practically defines youthful, aww-shucks innocence (or whatever the Russian equivalent for ‘aww-shucks’ is), to the point that that unrealistic playing up of youthful vigor and innocence compromises both the realism AND the mythic qualities that the film is trying to depict. 

But fuck it, I was moved by this story regardless.  Are there unfortunate clichés?  Sure there are (“Where will you go now?”, Alyosha asks a despondent fellow soldier who feels ashamed to reunite with his wife after he’s lost his leg.  The soldier shrugs, looks off towards the heavens and thoughtfully says “Russia is a big country.”  Good god…).  And some moments of humor, like a collection of scenes involving canned beef, and “Mamaaaa!!!!” (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it) are just plain awkward.  But otherwise, I thought it was all handled with class and dignity and even with a kind of graceful poetry.  There are some genuinely beautiful shots, like the ones above that combine vast, open spaces with the mournful image of a person standing by his or her self, practically swallowed up by the open space and in their own loneliness, and on the flipside, some incredibly intimate shots, mostly low-angle, that demonstrate both the close quarters of men in combat and, say, an awkward discomfort felt between Alyosha and Shura as they stow away together in that train car (a scene on a crowded train car in which a group of soldiers lovingly tease Alyosha in disbelief that he actually took out two tanks, is wonderful.  These men are hot and sweaty and have no room to move their arms, but are still able to joke around with each other and revel in each other’s company.).  And for the most part, that sometimes-poetic, sometimes-intimate, always eye-grabbing cinematography works (except for that upside-down shot as Alyosha is being chased by the tank.  What the fuck was that…). 

The real selling point of this film, though, is the relationship between Alyosha and the just as innocent and naïve Shura, as they meet as fellow stowaways in that train car and develop a relationship from there.  Both characters are almost cartoonishly innocent, but apparently two wrongs make a right, because two embodiments of cartoonish innocence and a predictable progression where they get off to the wrong foot with a misunderstanding and develop a deep bond from there apparently combines into incredible chemistry, because that’s exactly what they have.  There’re never any clichéd proclamations of love (except in an ill-advised late-film montage in which Alyosha has quick glimpses of Shura’s past exploits, complete with the sappy music, that DEFINES cliché), only awkward but sensual moments of holding one another as they hide from a soldier, or harmless small talk, or jokes and genuine smiles.  It’s a very convincing and sweet and touching relationship between the two, and I hoped and prayed their collective story would end well (which is a long shot given the bleak premise, which probably contributes to why I responded to this film as strongly as I did, the whole hope in vain trick…).  If Chukhrai wanted to make “Ballad of a Soldier” into some grand meditation on the human condition and the ability of love to develop and grow despite the harshest of times, then for god’s sake, focus more on that positive part.  This was one of the more believable and tender relationships (I hesitate to use the word ‘romance’ because the story doesn’t feel the need to automatically go down that road a la a more predictable romantic drama, and the two even discuss whether platonic friendship is possible between a man and a woman) I’ve seen in a film in quite some time, and despite the images of blown-up buildings and trenches and limbless soldiers, it was a relationship that really put a smile on my face.

Obviously we have to be presented with the contrast between hopeful romance and the bleak world around it, but in this film, what that translates to is a bad imitation of Italian Neorealism, in scenes like the one where Alyosha and Shura present the father of a fellow soldier with a gift of a couple of bars of rare and treasured soap.  This scene, in a makeshift refugee shelter where everyone crowds around our heroes with dirt on their faces and looks of wonderment at the wide-eyed boy in the impressive-looking uniform, and the previous scene in the war-ruined street, screams ultra-realism that just isn’t there.  The relationship between Alyosha and Shura that develops from a rocky start to friendship to partnership to love easily could’ve been more of a primary focus in this film, and instead it pretty much comes off a step or two above just another subplot among the many misadventures of Alyosha as he makes his way home.  That so-called subplot deserved better, and as a result this movie would’ve been much, much better.  As it stands, though, it’s an uneven, but ultimately a good-hearted and heartfelt film, with a genuinely emotional, albeit somewhat histrionic and melodramatic, climax and resolution.  And if you’re not moved by those looks of absolute longing between Alyosha and Shura, you’re a communist.

7.5/10

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