Times Staff Writer

Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko calls his autobiographical film “Kindergarten” (opening Sunday at the Nuart) because that was what World War II was for him and his contemporaries.

As a debut for any writer-director, “Kindergarten” would be highly ambitious--a large-scale World War II epic as seen through the eyes of a child. Not surprisingly, Yevtushenko’s vision is often poetic; yet “Kindergarten,” for all its impressive craftsmanship, is disappointingly conventional. It’s not really different from countless other Russian war movies: sentimental paeans to the nobly suffering masses, and heady, swooning passages overflowing with the usual Russian soul.

Emptying his goldfish-filled aquarium into a river, the 9-year-old Yevtushenko, nicknamed Zhenia (Sergej Gusak), joins the crush of people trying to grab a train during the evacuation of Moscow in October, 1941, being sent off by his mother to the safety of the Siberian village where his grandmother lives.

For nearly an hour “Kindergarten” is familiar, shamelessly manipulative war-is-hell stuff. No sooner has Zhenia given his extra pair of shoes to a tow-headed kid who’d tried to steal them than the kid is shot dead by a German fighter plane; no sooner does a good-time girl, riding on the train’s roof with her sailor boyfriend, talk about reforming than she, too, is shot down. And when Zhenia, a budding violinist, discovers that the blind beggar whose songs he’s been accompanying isn’t sightless at all, the boy angrily dashes a cup of hot coffee in the man’s face, presumably blinding him for real!


Things start picking up about an hour into the film when Zhenia runs afoul of some ruthless black marketeers and is rescued by a beautiful, glamorous blonde (Svalna Evstratova), a young Catherine Deneuve of the Urals and the lover of a clever thief. When Evstratova is redeemed by Zhenia’s goodness, and he is at last united with his wise old peasant grandmother (Galina Stachanova) in her quaint dacha, Zhenia’s story is really over.

But since the war isn’t, the film runs on another 30 minutes or so with more homages to Russian sacrifice and bravery, concluding in a splash of anti-war sentiments. (A consolation: Now 130 minutes, “Kindergarten” originally ran 30 minutes longer.)

Yevtushenko gives himself a brief, showy Chaplinesque turn as a bewildered Moscow chess master, and there’s a cameo by Klaus Maria Brandauer as a decent, well-educated German officer who saves Zhenia’s father. Much in “Kindergarten” (Times-rated Mature: too intense for small children, some nudity) is lush and dramatic, filled with fantasy touches. But it plays like a shallow and overextended cliche.



An International Film Exchange release of a Mosfilm production. Writer-director Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Camera Vladimir Palyan. Music Gleb May. Lyrics Yevtushenko. Sets Victor Yushin. Film editor Igor Zekavaia. With Sergej Gusak, Svalna Evstratova, Galina Stachanova. In Russian, with English subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.