December 26, 1960 [Ballad of a Soldier]

Alyosha, the soldier in Ballad of a Soldier, and Shura, the young girl, meet as stowaways on a train, the war left behind. The two of them are impossibly young, their faces smooth and childlike, shining softly. The whole movie is like this, a song simple and beautiful enough for me to sing it myself—and to want to memorize it so I can sing it again, year after year. The Russian camera loves to sink down so that it can peer upward at its subjects, almost shyly—and the result is not a demure glance but a fully orchestrated requiem, the sky filling the background, the whole Earth curving into the distance.

The size of everything around them—particularly the deprivations of the war, the ragged gaping holes and tired faces, rutted roads, the houses turned inside-out—is matched by their big round eyes, gazing at one another—until the soldier makes it home (for a moment) and gazes at his mother, his hands on her shoulders as though afraid the two of them will turn away, it is so wonderful they see each other and so awful. This is a Soviet gift of transcendent power—bigger than either side's rotten stories we tell about each other—because Ballad of a Soldier sings with such love and humor and heartache I can't bear to listen to those other stories, dragging us down where they got us good and tight.


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