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The Steamroller and the Violin (Andrei Tarkovsky) 1960


    The Steamroller and the Violin, a student film made by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, is a student film first and a Tarkovsky film second. It eschews the majority of the director’s later distinctive style, adopting instead the tone of a treacly mid-‘90s Miramax foreign film release. The movie ponderously adopts the point of view of Sasha, its 7 year old protagonist, as he goes to his violin lessons then strikes up a friendship with a steamroller operator. The two of them must be meant to represent archetypical embodiments of art and commerce, but the film never does much to expand on their relationship in a meaningful way after setting it up, besides noting that both of them are equally industrious. Mostly, the film plays out like a typically unlikely “child befriends an adult and enriches him” story. They spend an afternoon together, and though the time passes by pleasantly enough, the viewer will most likely be thankful that the film is just over forty minutes long instead of expanded into feature length.


    I suppose in many ways The Steamroller and the Violin is Tarkovsky’s most accessible film – it’s emotionally accessible and the plot is bluntly straightforward – but it’s also his least rewarding work. Tarkovsky would later prove himself to be a visual storyteller of remarkable prowess, but here it seems that he’s not yet capable of conceiving truly striking images. Whether that’s due to his inexperience in filmmaking, the relatively empty-headed material he’s tackling, or the budgetary constraints he was probably dealing with is up to debate, but in any case the resultant images are generally underwhelming. Scenes showing the destruction of a building during a rainstorm, the reflection of light off water cast upon the walls around the characters, and a close-up of a ripple in a puddle seem to hint at the themes of the natural world’s presence in the human psyche that would later dominate much of Tarkovsky’s work, but ultimately end up feeling more like simple spectacle that thrills the boy at the center of the story. Some simple tracking shots hint at the filmmaking language that Tarkovsky would eventually master, but they’re hardly revelatory when looked at outside of such a historical context. It’s telling that in the film’s climatic moment, when the boy plays his violin for the steamroller operator, it has little impact. It wants to transcend the moment, but the movie doesn’t really seem to have anything in mind that it wants to transcend to besides a simple-minded fusion of their two ideologies. After this dramatic letdown, the rest of the film peters out with little impact. The disappointment that the boy feels during the ending moments strikes me more as incidental than bittersweet. My own disappointment with Tarkovsky’s first effort seemed the strongest emotional reaction associated with the film.


* * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman