Saturday 1 August 2020

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 63. Ballad of a Soldier

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces and fascinating curios that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Ballad of a Soldier
Director - Grigoriy Chukhrai
Country - Soviet Union
Year 1956
Runtime - 88 minutes

Ballad of a Soldier begins with a rousing prologue in which a lonely woman wanders through an empty village and gazes longingly across the surrounding meadows. A narrator informs us that she is waiting for the return of her nineteen year old son, Alyosha, who was drafted into the army and is one of many brave soldiers who lost their lives during the war. Thus begins the stirring story of Alyosha's life that is unknown to his mother, as we join him at the Russian front where he is under attack from German tanks. His courageous actions in battle lead to two tanks being destroyed and his sergeant rewards him by relieving Alyosha of his duty for six days. This leaves just enough time for him to return to his village so he can help his mother repair her leaking roof - an exclamation that leaves the other members of his unit in stitches.

It is during this eventful journey that Alyosha encounters a handful of strangers affected by the war in various ways. He strikes up a companionship with a wounded soldier, Vasya, and later on befriends a young lady, Shura. His compassion and kindness lead to Alyosha delaying his own plans to ensure that those he meets are taken care of and reach their destinations safely. These selfless actions inspire us with hope in the kindness of strangers yet also fill us with sadness as the knowledge that Alyosha doesn't survive his wartime experiences looms over us.

Director Grigori Chukhrai has captured the devastation and heartache of a country in turmoil through the telling of an enchanting storyline in a visually arresting manner. The camera sweeps across the action with an unnatural grace as mesmerising set pieces hold your gaze fast. A dramatic soundtrack accompanies the picture with a recurring motif that tugs on your heartstrings and heightens the emotional impact of Alyosha's fateful journey. This is the work of a masterful film-maker who has crafted a visceral and moving picture that resonates deeply as its aching poignancy grips hold of you firmly.

Alyosha is depicted as an innocent soul and Vladimir Ivashov's youthful good looks and irresistible charm made him the perfect actor for this role. He imbues his character with a kind-hearted persona that encourages almost everyone (except for a mean-spirited train guard) to succumb to Alyosha's charms.We are instantly impressed by his bravery and enamoured by his humble nature; his touching request to visit his mother in place of receiving a medal of honour impresses upon us that which he holds dearest to him. As the film progresses he continues to astound us with his selfless exploits, and this makes the emotional aspect of the film hit harder as we are so invested in his plight.

The cathartic journey our hero embarks upon offers a poignant and revealing insight into the horrors of war, without ever having to show any graphic injuries or shocking deaths. Dazzling scenes involving double exposure conjure up memories of regret as Alyosha bids a fond farewell to a dear friend. This striking technique is also used during the aftermath of a bombing run on a train, where Alyosha fights to pull injured children out of carriages engulfed in fire. Alongside these technically impressive sequences, Chukhrai employs imaginative methods of bringing his sets to life such as tracing the bubbles blown by two young boys as they glide down a stairwell into the path of his protagonists. Evocative imagery like this is present in many of the film's scenes, creating a memorable and magical viewing experience despite the bleak and upsetting scenario we are exposed to.

At its heart, Ballad of a Soldier is a patriotic call to arms, a reason for the Soviet Union to be proud of the sacrifices made by their courageous soldiers during the war. However, its universal themes of regret, the loss of innocence and the unconditional love between a mother and her son still have the power to connect with audiences of all cultural backgrounds. This is a tragic but life-affirming film; a sublime work of art that transcends its cinematic medium by reaching out to its audience and invoking spine-tingling sensations as it inches ever closer to its heartstopping climax.

If you take the time to watch Ballad of a Soldier then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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