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Ballad Of A Soldier
cast: Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko, Antonina Maksimova

director: Grigory Chukhrai

89 minutes (PG) 1959
Nouveaux DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Despite being made in the former Soviet Union at a time when artists were supposedly allowed a bit more leeway to express themselves, Ballad Of A Soldier (aka: Ballada o soldate) managed to get itself banned. This is surprising considering that you will be hard pressed to find a more warm-heartedly sentimental film than this one.

Set during the Second World War, the film starts as a Russian signalman not only survives as his unit is wiped out around him, but then also manages to accidentally destroy two Nazi tanks. Suddenly considered a hero, the only thing that na�ve country boy Alyosha (Vladimir Ivashov) desires is to return home and fix his mother's roof; a boon that a weary general is only too glad to grant him. On his way home, Alyosha makes a number of encounters but none more memorable than Shora (Zhanna Prokhorenko), a beautiful girl who winds up hiding in the same freight car as him. As time goes by, the two young people move from outright hostility and fear to tolerance to acceptance to the beginnings of love before fate separates them again. Forced to miss his trains and transports by cruel happenstance, Alyosha eventually does return home to see his mother (Antonina Maksimova) with only enough time to embrace her before going back to the front, never to return.

At one point in the interview included on this DVD, Chukhrai says that this film is the story of his life. Since he is a veteran of the battle of Stalingrad, it is tempting to take this statement literally and see the film as an autobiography but the truth is that this film is about the life of Russian soldiers during the Second World War.

The film focuses on the different experiences that different soldiers would have had of the war. These different experiences are represented partly by the main protagonist and partly by the different soldiers he encounters on his way home. Alyosha's experience is twofold. Firstly, in his touchingly chaste and sweet relationship with Shura, he experiences the heartbreak of all the young men who started to fall in love only to have that possibility stripped away from them by the demands of the war. Secondly, Alyosha experiences the love of his mother and how the war has snatched many people away from their loving families. This scene is particularly poignant and I challenge anyone to not feel a knot in his or her throat when Alyosha finally gets to see his mother. As Alyosha leaves the front he encounters a man who loves his wife so much that he begs Alyosha to send her his love and even passes on, as a gift for her, his soap ration... a rare luxury at the front. However, when Alyosha meets the soldier's wife he finds her living with a rich man and clearly engaging in an affair. So, rather than carry out the soldier's wishes Alyosha takes the soap to the woman's father who is now living in a shelter because he will not only value the soap but value news of his beloved son-in-law. Despite exploring these three negative aspects of the soldier's experience, Ballad Of A Soldier also dwells on the positive story of a man who is ashamed to go how to his wife because he has lost a leg. This soldier has tried to convince himself that he no longer loves his wife but after Alyosha convinces him to stay at the train station long enough for her to run to him and hug him, you can see the cynicism fall from the man's face.

Full of amazingly touching moments, Ballad Of A Soldier is a beautifully made and wonderfully acted story whose sentimental take on the Second World War is a welcome change to the nihilistic wound porn of recent films such as Saving Private Ryan or Flags Of Our Fathers (2006). Having said that, the sheer simple-minded benevolence of the film is rather jarring. I spent the first hour expecting some satirical edge to appear or something dreadful to happen to one of the protagonists. However, the film just chugs along elegantly exploring the different aspects of a soldier's civilian life and occasionally hitting you with moments of such warm-hearted tenderness that they wind up making you realise what an utterly wretched person you really are. This is a truly disconcerting sensation at a time when positive emotional experiences in the cinema tend to be awful and saccharine and better directors universally reach for the same grey to black shades on the emotional pallet. You simply will not see a film as wholesomely nice as this in the cinema today.

As wonderful an experience as that is, you do have to be in the mood for it and should this film catch you in the wrong mood then your cynical worldview will undeniably break this gentle film's emotional spell.

This film comes with a few nice extras. Aside from the dull and entirely pointless filmographies and stills galleries, the film has some Second World War news footage of a Red Square May Day parade which is a lot of fun if only for the silly patriotic commentary. However, the star of the show is Chukhrai himself who talks at length about being hauled in front of various Soviet commissars whilst sitting on a sofa that looks as though it was made from human skin. A bizarrely nightmarish vision not improved by the similarities between Chukhrai and Shadrach Dingle from Emmerdale. It is a bit like watching Dot Cotton talk about her experiences in the Khmer Rouge from atop a throne made of human skulls. Distracting similarities aside, it is difficult not to warm to Chukhrai's warm and open manner and while he does waffle a bit, it does give a nice insight into the climate that produced the film.
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