July 14th, 2006
“Strangers bring flowers to his grave.”
Synopsis: Russian soldier Alyosha Skvortsov is granted a visit with his mother after he singlehandedly fends off two enemy tanks. As he journeys home, Alyosha encounters the devastation of his war-torn country, witnesses glimmers of hope among the people, and falls in love. With its poetic visual imagery, Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is an unconventional meditation on the effects of war, and a milestone in Russian cinema.
Critique: We are told at the outset that Alyosha is killed at the front, never to return to his mother, to Shura, or to anyone else again. Ballad of a Soldier’s conclusion strikes a single, clear tone with one of the most poignant of wartime questions — what if? What if Alyosha, decent and honorable and deserving of a full life, had not died in the war? What could he, and by extension some 20 million Alyoshas, have become? What could this everyday hero have contributed if he’d been allowed to fulfill his promise? Ballad doesn’t answer the question. Instead it tells us that Alyosha dies a “simple Russian soldier” (a citizen of a country, not an ideology) because he never had the time or opportunity to be anything else.
Technically rich yet possessing a refining simplicity, Ballad of a Soldier is a quietly powerful work that could have diminished into soapy melodrama or government-stamped rhetoric. Instead, director/co-writer Grigori Chukhrai delivered a personal ode, one indeed as emotive and straight-shooting as a ballad, to his own postwar generation. He did so with then-distinctive attention to varying responses war brings out in individual people, with moments of unmistakable (and now sweetly chaste) sexual heat, and without resorting to the clichés, stilted symbols, or pompous phraseology that did so much harm to Soviet cinema. If handsome, virtuous Alyosha is an idealized emblem of the Soviet character, it’s to the degree that, say, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne personified America’s images of itself. Ballad is artful without being at all inaccessible, and every element — cinematography, sound, and especially the performances of the two extraordinary actors playing Alyosha and Shura — is as energetic and sharply honed as any of the best Hollywood or Western European product.
During the early ’60s, when Kruschev supported a brief thaw in Cold War tensions, Ballad triumphantly toured the international festival circuit. It was (and is) hailed as a gem-like representative of the period’s “new Soviet cinema,” and for Russians it became one of their most beloved movies while also earning awards in Cannes, San Francisco, London, Tehran, and Milan before winning the Lenin Prize at home. In 1962 it was Oscar-nominated for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) and won the British Academy Award for Best Film From Any Source. Our vantage-point several decades later allows us a broader view of Ballad’s resonant theme. What might writer-director Grigori Chukhrai or the previously unknown acting students — Zhanna Prokhorenko (who’s as lovely and soulful as Ingrid Bergman in her prime) and Vladimir Ivashov (one of the best leading men Hollywood never had) — have achieved if politics and circumstances had permitted greater artistic back-and-forth between the U.S. and Soviet film industries? There’s of course no answer for that, though this release of Ballad of a Soldier hints at what might have been.
— Mark Bourne, The DVD Journal
My Thoughts: What a find this movie was! I loved Alyosha’s sense of honor that he touches everyone he mets on his journey with. In the end, though he was a hero soldier, it was his humanity that made him revered in his short life. The movie culminates in a wonderful scene permeated by a powerful silence. Also noteworthy was the beautiful cinematography.