Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the few Soviet filmmakers to emerge from the ‘60s with an international reputation, often said that music was the most effective of all art forms, simply because it evokes feelings in the most ineffable but far-reaching ways.
Tarkovsky spent his career trying to infuse his movies with that quality. His best, which haven’t always received much exposure in the United States, have been called impressionistic. That description fits “My Name Is Ivan,” Tarkovsky’s debut picture.
The 1962 movie, which screens tonight as part of UC Irvine’s “Love and Loss: Relationships in Crisis” series, revolves around a 12-year-old Russian boy who loses his parents during a Nazi attack in World War II. Shortly after, his sister dies in his arms during a shelling of his hometown.
Alone, Ivan makes a heroic and impetuous decision, to become a self-appointed spy. He goes behind German lines, gathering information. Then the boy takes his most dangerous journey, a two-week foray into Nazi territory.
Don’t be misled if this all seems dramatic in a straightforward way. While the emotional weight of “Ivan” is clear from the first frames--Tarkovsky doesn’t stray from making us feel the pain of Ivan’s world--there is that sense of music the director is so intent on conveying.
At the picture’s best, it ranges from brutal overtures to sensitive solos. His style is to link images, sometimes diverse, in a cinematic pastiche. He shifts from scenes of Ivan’s harsh experiences in the war to almost surreal scenes of better times, whether real or imagined.
Tarkovsky likes generating a dreamy atmosphere, as when Ivan recalls his mother in more idyllic days. Those moments are contrasted with the boy’s edgy interaction with soldiers near the front. The images can be jarring and even obtuse. But the abstract sway gives “Ivan” a powerful resonance.
Ivan’s hardship is made precise for the audience in a shocking nightmare sequence involving his falling down a well. But Tarkovsky shifts the tone in romantic ways as well, as when a soldier kisses a nurse while she seems suspended strangely, affectingly over a ditch.
Ultimately, “Ivan” is a condemnation of war and the toll it takes on innocent victims. Ivan, of course, is the most obvious casualty; not only does he lose his family, but he also loses his childhood because of it. We have pity for Ivan because of his predicament, and because of Kolya Burlaiev’s remarkable performance.
The boy actor is so natural in the role, which is a credit to his talents but also to Tarkovsky’s patience and skill. Together they turned the movie into what the New York Times called “a keening cry of sadness.”
* Andrei Tarkovsky’s “My Name Is Ivan” screens tonight at the UC Irvine Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium, Bridge Road and Pereira Drive. 7 and 9 p.m. $2-$4. (714) 824-5588.