Grigory Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier, a deliriously romantic story of a six-day pass, is a Russian classic, a simple, poetic tale where the sentimental streak and patriotic idealism common to the Soviet formula is humanized with vivid characters and tender direction. I survey the film for Turner Classic Movies Online this month.
Think of Ballad of a Soldier (1959) as the poetic odyssey of an accidental hero through the ideals of the Soviet state pulling together in times of hardship, with a few raised eyebrows at the few shirkers and unfaithful spouses on the homefront. It’s beautifully photographed (life during wartime has rarely looked so beautiful) but it’s also filled with visions of poverty and hardship. And there is also a poignancy to his journey, his romantic interlude and his all-too-brief reunion with his mother: the narration that opens the film explains to the audience that Alyosha does not survive the war. This is his farewell tour and he lives it to its fullest, meeting the world and everyone in it with an open heart and a generous spirit.
Ballad of a Soldier was made in early days of the Russian “thaw,” a brief period after the death of Stalin when Nikita Khrushchev oversaw a series of political reforms. Parallel to the political movement was an easing of censorial standards for artists, who were given more freedom to stray from the state-imposed Social Realism and themes that glorified party leadership and collective idealism. It was the first flowering of Soviet cinematic freedom between World War II and Perestroika and Ballad of a Soldier was one of the defining films of the era. Like the films before it, it respects and reveres authority figures and idealizes the salt-of-the-earth workers of the great Soviet nation, but it also casts its gaze beyond the ideals to explore the more human dimensions. In one of the most delicate scenes, a veteran who lost his leg is afraid to return home to his wife. With his unending optimism and faith in the spirit of the Soviet people, Alyosha helps him along and quietly and respectfully observes the tender reunion. And while his romantic interlude with the young stowaway is perfectly chaste (they don’t even kiss), there is a hunger in his eyes as, hidden behind a haystack, he watches her fix her stockings. Such a suggestion of sexual desire would have been unthinkable just a couple of years before.
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