Father of a Soldier Review

The Second World War is, for all too understandable reasons, possibly the single most popular theme of postwar Soviet cinema. Indeed, as far as international exposure is concerned, one could be forgiven for thinking at times that it was practically the only theme, though this may well be due to international festival juries championing the subject: in the late 1950s and early 1960s three major Soviet award-winners were The Cranes Are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier and Ivan's Childhood.

All three films were based on a similar theme - the effect of the war on ordinary Russians (a soldier's girlfriend, a soldier barely out of his teens, a young boy), and this rather more obscure 1964 Georgian film by the equally obscure Rezo Chkheidze very much follows in their footsteps.

The major difference is that the protagonist is at the other end of the age scale - Georgy Makharashvili (Sergo Zakariadze) is an elderly peasant wine-grower from Georgia. Receiving news that his tank-commander son Goderdzi has been wounded and has ended up in a military hospital, he vows to pay him a visit - but the journey (mostly by overcrowded donkey-drawn cart piloted by a legless war veteran) takes so long that by the time he arrives, Goderdzi has been patched up and sent back to the front.

Refusing to return to his village empty-handed (not least because his terrifying babushka of a wife would doubtless make mincemeat of him), Georgy decides to track his son down, a journey that takes him over the Soviet border and on to Berlin, which he reaches just as it's being liberated in 1945. On the way, he manages to get recruited into the Red Army, despite his age, his poor Russian, and other soldiers' misgivings (just think of the propaganda angle if the Germans found out the Bolsheviks were making old men fight!), by winning over the powers that be thanks to his sheer charisma and all too evident fighting ability.

This is not, to put it mildly, especially plausible, and there's also some rather heavy-handed polemicising along the way. Chkheidze tries a little too hard to convey the concept of Georgy being closer to nature (and therefore nobler) than anyone else, culminating in a faintly absurd scene where he defies a Soviet tank in the process of crushing a German vineyard and lectures its commander on the importance of respect for the earth - something that separates the sensitive Soviet people from murderous Nazi thugs.

While I can certainly defend this and numerous sweeping claims for the virtues and achievements of Georgian soldiers on the grounds of understandable nationalism (given the film's origins), I also can't forget that the leader of the Soviet Union at the time had - and exploited - the same Georgian peasant roots in murderously asserting his superiority over the weak-willed Russian intelligentsia. While Stalin is never mentioned in the film, I'd be surprised if this wasn't picked up on even at the time, and it adds a rather disturbing counterpoint to the film's overall message.

But if these elements are glossed over, the film is consistently engaging and often surprisingly moving. Although the film generally lacks the imaginative flourishes of its predecessors, there's a lovely scene in a snow-shrouded trench where Army musicians are persuaded to play a Georgian folk tune for Georgy as he sleeps. Even better, the battle scenes are impressively and unexpectedly lavish - occasionally punctuated with obvious stock footage, but it genuinely does look as though Chkheidze and his team managed to get hold of several dozen tanks for their purposes, and they make full use of them: there are quite a few heart-stopping moments where Georgy and his comrades seem to be staring death in the face.

The film's single strongest element, though, is Sergo Zakariadze's performance in what was clearly a difficult role to bring off given the ideological baggage Georgy has been saddled with, the emotional nature of his quest for Goderdzi and the fact that much of his dialogue necessarily has to be delivered in halting, bordering-on-pidgin Russian. He's in virtually every shot, and effortlessly dominates the proceedings, firmly establishing that his quest for his son is the single most important thing in the world: the liberation of Berlin and the end of the war very much playing second fiddle. And it's a great tribute to Zakariadze that we almost believe this ourselves.

Sourced from a virtually pristine print (barring occasional bits of stock footage) that completely belies the film's age, this is for the most part a very satisfying transfer: my only real quibble is that the blacks could be deeper, though the dynamic range is otherwise wide enough. In general, it boasts a pleasantly sharp picture with no significant digital glitches, and it's hard to imagine it looking much better. The aspect ratio is 4:3, and there are no signs either from the film itself or from the dominant aspect ratio of the period that it should be anything else - so anamorphic enhancement is unnecessary.

The sound was originally mono, and that's largely what's on offer here, the only concessions to the 5.1 remix being occasional directional shots involving vehicles passing the camera and some subwoofer-enhanced explosions, which come into their own as Georgy gets closer and closer to the front. Those aside, there are no real sonic thrills to speak of, but no noticeable glitches either - in terms of recording quality, it's on a par with anything else being made in the mid-1960s.

These comments apply to the original Russian soundtrack: a quick glance at the English reveals a dub that's technically competent but not much more - and one that glosses over the Georgian/Russian divide by making Georgy appear a simpleton rather than someone who doesn't speak Russian that well. A French dub is also on offer, along with the usual shedload of subtitles - the English ones are, as ever, by Tatiana Kameneva, and while I can't judge the accuracy of the translation, I can certainly vouch for the English ones being fluent, idiomatic and grammatically correct.

The extras are subdivided into four sections. 'Ruscico' has the usual stills gallery and filmographies, the former containing thirteen pictures and a poster reproduction (selectable via the usual admirably clear thumbnail arrangement), while the latter cover director Rezo Chkheidze (who also gets a mini-biography), cameramen Lev Sukhov and Archil Filippashvili, writer Suliko Zhgenti, composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze and actors Ivan Kosykh, Alexander Lebedev, Sergo Zakariadze and Pyotr Lyubeshkin. Sadly, none of these contain buried trailers or other hidden extras that pop up on other Ruscico titles.

But the 'Coming Soon' section compensates on the trailer front, offering The Cranes Are Flying, Torpedo Bombers, Ballad of a Soldier and At Dawn It's Quiet Here, all available on DVD in Ruscico's War collection.

'Chronicle' contains two pieces of archive footage - 'The Parade on the Red Square 1941' is self-explanatory (and somewhat familiar if you've seen Ruscico's The Cranes are Flying, as it's on that disc too), though here it's been given an effective contrast in the form of 'Victory Day', a 1945 newsreel that kicks off with the German Admiral Keitel signing a formal surrender, and goes on to cover victory celebrations with Soviet soldiers returning to ecstatic (and often weeping) crowds both in major cities and small country villages, plus a more formal parade where the director is careful to give equal weight to air, sea and land forces. Halfway through the scene shifts to Georgia, and so does the tone, with a rather greater emphasis on Orthodox priests, traditional folk music and dances and what I presume to be equally traditional moustache-twirling ceremonies. Each film runs slightly under seven minutes apiece.

And finally, there's a five-and-a-half minute archive documentary that kicks off with footage from the 4th Moscow International Film Festival awards ceremony, in which Sergo Zakariadze won Best Actor, and then covers his victory banquet in his home town, intercutting shots of him pointing out local attractions with scenes from the film. There also appears to be some interview footage, but it's hard to be too definite as the version here is presented silently with a crackly musical accompaniment, presumably traditional Georgian choral singing. All the Russian-language extras have optional subtitles in English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Italian.

Given that the Soviet Union produced so many outstanding films about the trauma of the Second World War, Father of a Soldier is never going to be in the front rank - if you've never seen a Russian war film before, you'd be better off with one of the other films I've mentioned, along with Elem Klimov's incendiary Come and See. But if you've already been impressed by those and want to see more, you could do a lot worse than this - and Ruscico's DVD presentation is as good as it's ever realistically likely to get.

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