USSR, 1960 (MIFF 1960, Programme 6)
Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
"In the beginning I led a very ordinary life. . ." This is the way Andrei Sokolov, the hero of A Man's Destiny by Mikhail Sholokhov, starts to tell us about himself. A simple, unadorned story of a plain man who has shouldered the full brunt of the desperate battle against fascism. . .this "ordinary" life, emerges in all its greatness and difficulties, its hatred of all that breeds evil on earth, its indestructable love for all that is human.
In this story Sholokhov's realism is seen at its best: his acute sense of truthful portrayal, his intimate knowledge of the life of his people, and a clear unwavering optimism that is deep-rooted in this life.
In A Man's Destiny, Sergei Bondarchuk, known here chiefly for his roles in The Grasshopper and Othello, is the principal actor. He also makes his debut as a director, preserving the austerity and simplicity of Sholokhov's art in its entirety on the screen. To his status as an actor of great dramatic power he thus adds that of a film director of fine penetration and observation.
. . .Life went on - love, a family, a wife's smile, children's first steps. From the moment war burst upon this happy, workaday life, Andrei Sokolov's tragedy begins.
A series of impressions make their impact. . . the first days of the war, the fields torn up by shells, grain crushed by tanks, fighting. . . And Andrei's own fate - the heroic efforts to stand fast, not to bend under the horrors of fascist captivity.
The episode of escape from a concentration camp gives Bondarchuk's talent full scope. Intense enjoyment of the brief moment of liberty, contact with the soil, the feel of the sunlight, despite the imminence of recapture and punishment, are conveyed with a profound understanding of the psychology of his hero.
Bondarchuk's Sokolov is not the hero of legend, but an ordinary man, tormented by hunger and beatings; he conquers because he has a spiritual strength.
In captivity he lives on hope - the hope of returning home to his loved ones. But when he returns he suffers a new blow, the charred ruins of his home, the death of his wife and daughters. But he has a son - the son is still alive, fighting at the front.
The scene where he is told of his son's death in battle is one of the most moving scenes in the film. The war has robbed the man of his last hope - and this is the touchstone of truth in the whole narrative. When we see him after he is demobilised, he wears an expression of dull hopelessness, his face deeply lined as though burnt out in the pitiless flames of war.
The culminating touch to the images of Sokolov - in an encounter with an orphan as destitute as himself - is that of generous heart and an unbounded belief that man cannot be happy unless he brings happiness to others.
A Man's Destiny is a real work of art and the ideas it expresses are those that evoke a response in every nation - love of people, belief in their strength, their minds and hearts, hatred of war, and an impassioned appeal to preserve peace.