Post by Anna Fomicheva
I consider performances by children to be one of the strengths of Russian cinema. I have no pseudo-scientific explanation on offer here, but the examples of mind-boggling acting by children throughout Russian history of the medium are so many and, to my knowledge, so unlike anything in Anglophone cinema, that it would have been impossible to compile a top 5 had I not restricted myself to the late Soviet period (1960-1990, as I consider it). And even despite this restriction I found it challenging to pick just 5 best performances, yet alone arrange them in order of their quality or my personal preference. Therefore I would like to emphasise that the arrangement between 1 and 5 is somewhat arbitrary.
And before I proceed, I would also like to list my two honourable mentions. One of the restrictions I imposed on myself when compiling this list was the decision to exclude the films where the ensemble cast of children, rather than one child actor, is what gives the film its potency. The two best exmples of this are The Republic of SHKID (“Республика ШКИД”, 1966) and Welcome, or No Trespassing (“Добро пожаловать, или Посторонним вход воспрещен”, 1964), both outstanding films, and it would be a shame to overlook them, so I hope to cover them here at some point in the future.
#5 Nikolai Burliaev in Ivan’s Childhood (“Иваново детство”, 1962)
Andrey Tarkovsky‘s first full-length feature is set during the Second World War and tells a story of a boy who lost his family and home to the war, and after being ‘adopted’ by the Red Army he now partakes in the intelligence missions against the German invaders. The film is based on a novella by Vladimir Bogomolov, and the life-affirming story of a child finding family amongst the soldiers of the Red Army is rather standard in socialist realism. However, Tarkovsky wouldn’t be Tarkovsky if he made a life-affirming socialist realist film. The childhood in the title actually refers to the lack of such in Ivan’s life. He does not act or think like a child anymore. He is hard, unforgiving and full of blind hatred towards the enemy. This is a young person whose personality has been forever altered by the trauma of war. And the only glimpses of Ivan’s pre-war world we get are his dreams, heartbreakingly gentle and innocent, shot in what would become Tarkovsky’s famous poetic style. It is the juxtoposition between the harshness of reality and Ivan’s happiness in his dreams that gives the film its poignancy, and Nikolay Burlyaev’s acting carries this off magnificently. A masterly perfomarmance by any standard.
#4 Irina Volkova in Oh, That Nastya! (“Ох уж эта Настя!”, 1972)
Nastya (diminutive of Anastasia) is a school girl who dreams of joining the Pioneers. But she also dreams of magical faraway lands, tells stories about them in her geography lessons, and has Bagheera – the panther from Soviet animation of The Jungle Book – as her imaginary friend (the film rather coyly combines live action and animation). Because of that she is deemed a liar and unsuitable to join the Pioneers. Irina Volkova plays Nastya with disarming earnestness, as she genuinely never doubts that the mix of reality and imagination in her head is somehow ‘true’. “I never lie! I’m not a liar!”, she repeats throughout the movie. The resolution of the film, despite what you might expect from a Soviet movie, sees Nastya being accepted by the Pioneers (and therefore by the state and society) not because she changes her ways, but because society around her comes to accept her the way she is. Nastya remains true to herself, and it is her head teacher who starts reminiscing about herself being a little girl with big imagination and thereby reconnects with her inner child. Ultimately, the film asks the fundamental philosophical quesion: ‘What is real?’. And in the guise of a children’s movie, Oh That Nastya!, consciously or not, challenges the official philosophical stand of the Soviet state by favouring subjective idealism over objective materialism. That’s the kind of controversial bombshell you can find in late-period Soviet cinema, which is why I love it.
#3 Fyodor Stukov in Kinfolk (“Родня”, 1981)
Before Nikita Mikhalkov became the most hated man in Russia, before his involvement in politics and before his effective take-over of the Russian film industry, he used to be a wonderful filmmaker, and Kinfolk is a testament to those glorious days. A village woman, played by the great Nonna Mordyukova, who by that point has become the cinematic symbol of all Russian village women, comes to a city to visit to her daughter Nina and granddaughter Irishka. The clashes between generations, city and village, the old and the new, Russian and ‘Western’ inevitably ensue. Those clashes make for desperately sad commentary on modern Russian life, but also for brilliant comedy. This combination of funny and sad is beautifully realised in the character of Irishka, a girl played by a very talented boy Fyodor Stukov (also famous for his portrayal of Tom Sawyer in the Soviet TV adaptation). A city child, Irishka is rude, cynical and full of smartass remarks. But this is on the outside. On the inside she is sensitive and heartbroken about her parents’ divorce. She dances around the flat in her mother’s clothes to Boney M’s Sunny, sending grown-ups smug air kisses one moment and is found crying in her bed by her grandmother the next. Stukov’s performance in this is emotionally pitch-perfect, and I can never listen to Boney M without a tinge of melancholy.
#2 Elena Proklova in Someone is Ringing, Open the Door (“Звонят, откройте дверь”, 1965)
Someone is Ringing, Open the Door (also known, rather less awkwardly to English ear, as The Girl and the Bugler) is a film a about a school girl named Tanya on the search for the first Pioneers. She started the search in order to get the attention and approval of an older boy, a socially active and unashamedly opportunist Petya. Her mission does not end up being successful, but in the process she learns about friendships and their worth. Tanya is the first role of Russian film star Elena Proklova, and her charm, innocence, and affection for the people around her are simply irresistable. On this journey of learning and discovery she meets an oddball musician, played by one of the most spectacularly talented Russian actors (and directors) Rolan Bykov. The musician goes out of his way to help Tanya and his son Genka to find the first Pioneers. But the most moving scene in the film comes when Tanya asks the musician about his youth and whether he wanted to be a Pioneer when he was little. He tells her that he was not allowed to be a Pioneer, which could be an Aesopian hint at his Jewish heritage. Bykov’s character, whether due to his Jewishness or not, is an outsider. He is unlike everybody else: eccentric, kind and sentimental, and he has the power to change the life of a Soviet schoolgirl. This film praises the outsider and in that is another example of the subtle dissent of the late Soviet cinema.
#1 Lina Braknite in Dubravka (“Дубравка”, 1967)
I have chosen this film as my number one amongst others present in this top 5 because its power lies entirely in the performance of a child, the Lithuanian actress Lina Braknite. The film itself is perfectly fine, but it would not have been half as emotionally affecting and so universally adored if it wasn’t for Lina. The story is a classic coming-of-age setup: Dubravka is a young tomboyish girl who lives by the sea and plays football with the guys, until one day things change. What ultimately changes is that she starts growing up, and starts perceiving the world with painful sensitivity. She goes from hot to cold, from love to hatred, from hard to gentle so fast and and so intensely, that she is perpetually confused and confuses those around her. The film is wonderfully affectionate towards its main character, and Lina’s superb acting and rather magical on-screen presence makes her character relatable to young girls and boys everywhere.