In my long march through Russian history and literature, I’ve reached the early ’60s, and in the last few days I’ve watched a few of the most famous movies from the period of liberalization after Stalin’s death (named for Ehrenburg‘s novel The Thaw, which I don’t feel the need to read, since it’s not considered very good—though I did read Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone, also not very good but an interesting picture of life in the late ’40s and early ’50s). Two of them I’d already seen, many years ago, and it was interesting to revisit them with greater maturity and understanding of context. I enjoyed Ballad of a Soldier, but was more impatient with its longueurs and amateur lead actors than I had been as a beardless youth who identified with the thwarted lovers. This time around I found the opening and closing scenes with the soldier’s mother magnificent and the segment with the bitter cripple Vasya (played by Yevgeni Urbansky, dead at thirty-three a few years later) powerful and well written, but I rolled my eyes at the endless shots of rolling wheels and yearning puppy-love eyes. I guess I’m getting old and cynical. The Cranes Are Flying, however, holds up well; it still feels like a masterpiece on both the human and the purely cinematic levels. From the opening scenes of careless prewar joy to the devastating final sequence, it never lets up, and deserved the prizes it won.
The revelation for me was Seryozha (also known as Splendid Days and A Summer to Remember). Movies about children are usually dumb, drippy, disposable, or all three; there are very few that focus on the children themselves rather than their effects on the adults around them, take their problems and worldview utterly seriously, and are made with the kind of artistry that enables them to withstand comparison to [insert your top-ten movie list here]. For me, the gold standard has been Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home?; I can now add Seryozha to the list. Unfortunately, while Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes are Flying are available in excellent Criterion editions with good subtitles (linked to their titles), Seryozha doesn’t seem to be available on DVD at all; if you know Russian, you can watch it online here (YouTube, 76 min.). The end got me all choked up, and I’m not really much of a sentimental fool.