Yevgeny Yevtushenko is considered, within the Soviet Union, to be the finest living Russian poet. Being a connoisseur of neither the Russian language nor poetry in general, I cannot comment on that statement. I feel safe in saying that he is far from the finest Russian director, however.

The Kindergarten is Yevtushenko's first film (he's in his early fifties), and is not a particularly auspicious debut. Like most Russians his age, or, for that matter, most Russians of any age, he is obsessed with the Second World War. The titular kindergarten is in fact the war, for the film is about the effects of the German invasion on the children of Russia. Yevtushenko concentrates on one particular Russian boy who is bundled off to his grandmother in Siberia to protect him from the expected fall of Moscow. The trip is far from safe, however, so the boy has adventures which are something of a cross between The Painted Bird and Oliver Twist. Assuming one takes Yevtushenko's word, and why not, almost every event in the film is autobiographical. Yevtushenko claimed that only the boy's talent with a violin is invented, music being a bit more visual in its creation than poetry.

The Kindergarten's biggest problem is its sprawling plot, stretched out over a two and one half hour running time. There is a certain repetitiveness about some of the boy's experiences, and Yevtushenko dwells far too long on certain scenes, as if he were rapt in contemplation of a childhood memory. A scene of a Siberian wedding seems to last forever. Moreover, Yevtushenko uses a symbol in a manner reminiscent of a blindfolded man trying to kill a cockroach with a shillelagh in a china shop. The Kindergarten is strongest when Yevtushenko settles down to a straightforward, brisk recounting of the major incidents of the story.

In addition to his meandering way with the plot, Yevtushenko shows little talent for shot selection. Most of the shots are simple and unimaginative. These are a great improvement over the occasional "arty" shot which Yevtushenko chooses to interpolate. The photography is pretty, the scenery lovely, but the overall effect is not especially striking.

Yevtushenko does better with his largely amateur actors. Sergej Gusak is an excellent choice for the central role. He is natural and intelligent, and fortunate enough not to be given any the film's little sermons. The rest of the cast is also quite fine, with the possible exception of an overly florid performance from the actor portraying a thief our hero falls in with. Klaus Maria Brandauer, the excellent Austrian star of Mephisto (though doubtless more people saw him as the villain in Never Say Never Again) has a fine scene as a German officer who interrogates the boy's father.

Yevtushenko himself (in a brief statement made after the screening) apologized that he had tried to put too much into The Kindergarten, and that is the root of much of what's wrong with it. The Kindergarten was too ambitious a project for the first film of a director, particularly one whose talents are not visual. It's watchable and has some good moments, but is a failure overall.

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