It's interesting to see the differences in storytelling with films from the 40's and 50's versus today's pictures. Pictures from earlier eras, more often than not, were able to tell a satisfying story with fully-realized characters in a matter of 90 minutes or so; today we are often presented with movies that contain excessive running times when it becomes apparent that the story could be told in less time. A good example of this sort of economical, efficent storytelling, "Ballad Of a Soldier" is a 1959 Russian picture that is able to give the audience a full picture of a man within 88 minutes.
The film revolves around Alyosha Skvortsov (Zhanna Prokhorenko), a Russian soldier, who, as the film begins, has just taken out two German tanks by himself. Offered a medal for his actions, he instead requests a leave-of-absence so that he can visit his mother. The majority of the rest of the film follows him on his journey across the countryside, meeting new people and through various means (such as convincing a wounded veteran to return to his wife, who was afraid would feel differently about him), helping them improve their lives. He's a moral, kind character who we root for; his manner seems genuine and not forced; he's a good, bright person who has kept his way despite of the tragedy and distruction of the war around him. There's also the chance of love with a pretty, young fellow passinger named Shura.
I'm not going to give away the film's ending; I'd rather potential viewers follow to this journey to the end themselves. The performances are outstanding, especially Zhanna Prokhorenko as Alyosha. The film's beautiful and occasionally quite inventive (in moments such as the marvelous upside-down scene during the battle early on) cinematography also deserves special mention. While "Ballad of a Soldier" is a simple and fairly short film, it's a richly told, beautifully photographed and performed film that I found very thought-provoking and enjoyable.
VIDEO: Criterion presents the black and white 1957 film in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. According to the booklet, this new digital transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain print made by Mosfilm. Criterion has also used the MTI restoration system to remove instances of dirt, debris and scratches. The result of Criterion's efforts is a presentation that's pretty remarkable, considering this is about a 45-year-old picture. The image looks slightly on the softer side now and then, but the majority of the film appeared at least moderately well-defined and crisp.
Even though the MTI system has been used, the print still does show a few instances of wear here and there, mostly in the form of some light specks. Still, the picture probably appears considerably cleaner than prior editions. Pixelation was not seen at all, while edge enhancement remained completely absent. Overall, the black and white presentation looked rich and fresh for the majority, with no real concerns. The white subtitles remained easy to read.
SOUND: The soundtrack is presented by Criterion in Russian mono. The audio has been remastered in 24-bit and audio restoration technology has been used to remove pops, hiss and scratches. That statement in the booklet remains correct; the film's audio remained clear and crisp throughout; some louder noises and the music came across slightly roughly, but not terribly so. The listening experience met my expectations and surpassed them at times.
MENUS: Unusual for Criterion, the menus are basic and non-animated.
EXTRAS: An audio interview with director/co-screenwriter Grigori Chukhrai and stars Vladomir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko that was done after a preview screening in New York. No other supplements have been included.
Final Thoughts: A marvelously acted, powerful and often thought-providing film, "Ballad of a Soldier" is an exceptionally well-done motion picture that is very well-presented by Criterion's new DVD. This new edition offers terrific remastered video and solid audio, but no much in the way of supplements. Still, this is a picture well-worth seeing.