Just seven. Seven features over twenty-four years. That’s the sum of Andrei Tarkovsky’s output. Each one is a starkly entrancing masterpiece, evidencing a unique metaphysical vision. They’re about as far from easy films as you can get. They’re rich, nuanced and spare, and hugely influential in an oblique way. Art house giants like Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick owe a tremendous debt to Tarkovsky, and the existential science fiction of films like Stalker and Solaris casts a long, looming shadow into the present day.
TIFF’s retrospective of the brilliant Soviet filmmaker is titled The Poetry of Apocalypse, and it’s eminently fitting. Whether the film follows a medieval monk like Andrei Rublev, or an eerie tour guide to a surreally dangerous alien zone like Stalker, Tarkovsky’s movies drift in misty landscapes outside of time. Words like distant, ruminative and meditative come to mind, but there’s an urgency to Tarkovsky’s unflinching view that permeates all the work. Time and memory are vast and interconnected, but always fleeting. Behind the philosophical discussions and the long tracking shots of nature and architecture, a very specific search takes place, for the transcendental, for the elusive magic that binds God and man, but can never be affirmed.
Hardly surprising then that he never fit in well with Soviet culture, even as he won international awards in the sixties and seventies. Tarkovsky left the Soviet Union in the late seventies, never to return. But he died young, just fifty-four years old. He died of a mysterious lung cancer, as did his wife and the lead actor of his last film, The Sacrifice. Though there are conspiracy theories around his death, most likely he died from chemical exposure at the decrepit factory where much of The Sacrifice was filmed.
Often censored or repressed by the Soviets, TIFF has some great restorations in their line-up of Tarkovsky’s work. Here are the main highlights:
Andrei Rublev: “The most historically audacious Soviet production since Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice). We present the full-length version of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, almost a full hour longer than the version originally released here. Banned in the USSR for many years, Andrei Rublev is now considered the greatest postwar Soviet film. A magnificent “life” of the 15th-century monk and icon painter, who clung to his faith despite the atrocities he witnessed around him, this vivid recreation of the Middle Ages is charged with barbaric poetry; the closing sequence of the casting of the giant church bell transforms physical toil into one of the most profound instances of spiritual struggle in all cinema. “A film of spiritual power and epic grandeur, recreating 15th-century Russia with a vividness unmatched by any historical film I can think of. It may be Tarkovsky’s greatest work” (Philip French).
The Mirror: “An essential film, an extraordinarily beautiful movie” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice). Attacked by the Soviets for elitism and obscurity and banned from foreign screenings for many years, this awe-inspiring autobiographical film (Tarkovsky called it his “confession”) is a key to the director’s world and as close as cinema has come to a Proustian evocation of “lost time.” Weaving personal memories and dreams (wartime exile, the travails of Tarkovsky’s beloved mother) into collective memory (newsreels of the bombing of Barcelona, the Stalinist era, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, World War II), The Mirror recreates the world of Tarkovsky’s childhood in a flow of unforgettable images: a burning barn, a levitating woman, a boy being cured of a stutter by a hypnotist, a bird fluttering against a window pane. Olivier Assayas (the subject of a recent TIFF Cinematheque retrospective) cites The Mirror as his ideal film, one that goes beyond cinema and recreates the very act of remembering and perceiving: “When I first saw it, I thought the sequence just after the credits was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in the movies.”
Stalker: Recently restored, Stalker is now more than ever “a cultural event…. No one interested in world cinema … should miss it” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice). Three men — the Writer, the Professor, and the Stalker — travel from a post-apocalyptic landscape into “The Zone,” an area which the government declared off limits after a mysterious extraterrestrial event rendered it supposedly uninhabitable. Guided by the severe, shaven Stalker, the men navigate across a treacherous landscape of shifting, invisible “traps,” industrial debris, and subterranean passages to the threshold of the mysterious, wish-fulfilling “Room” at the Zone’s centre, which reveals and perhaps materializes one’s deepest desires. Tarkovsky rarely achieved such an intense rendering of spiritual quest: the Christ imagery and intimations of Dante, the voluptuous sense of ruin, decay, and imminent catastrophe, the painterly references to Bosch, Rembrandt, and Flemish art, and the temps morts of dripping water, billowing fog, and slow wind all combine to make the film one of his most beautiful and mesmerizing. “As necessary to the cinema as Mozart to music” (Gavin Millar, The Listener).
Solaris: Presented here in a new digital restoration, Tarkovsky’s rejoinder to Kubrick’s 2001is a visionary work in which the travel is not so much into outer but inner space, the cosmos of memory, consciousness, dreams. Dispatched to investigate what seems to be a case of mass psychosis on a space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) discovers that the planet’s “thinking ocean” has the power to materialize the deepest and most painful memories of the station’s crew — which he discovers for himself when his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) suddenly appears to him. The rationalist soon finds himself the captive of irrational forces, as painful apparitions of his life with Hari and her suicide draw forth his secret and repentive longings for the things he has lost. Feverishly shot in Scope and alternating artificial Soviet colour with black and white, Solaris is possibly Tarkovsky’s most moving statement on loss and regret. “A majestic and achieved work of art: not to make too fine a point of it, a masterpiece” (Mark Le Fanu).
The Sacrifice: Tarkovsky’s final film is a magisterial summation of his work, both testament and epitaph. Alexander (Erland Josephson), a tortured former actor and scholar living an isolated existence with his friends and family on the desolate Swedish island of Gotland, makes a pact with God after a distant nuclear attack makes the end of the world seem inevitable: he will renounce family, possessions and self if the world is saved. The themes of apocalypse and the redemptive innocence of childhood, of muteness and (holy) madness, of magic, memory, and dreams, are classic Tarkovsky, and the film is full of imagery that recalls The Mirror (including a levitating Icelandic witch), Stalker, and Nostalghia. Shot by Bergman’s favourite cinematographer Sven Nykvist in otherworldly northern light, The Sacrifice is bracketed by two of the longest (and riskiest) takes in the history of narrative cinema. “Not to be missed by anyone who cares about the cinema as an art form…. An intensely moving and humanistic document” (John Harkness, NOW Magazine).
The Poetry of Apocalypse: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky opens tonight, Thursday, November 9th, with his first film, Ivan’s Childhood. For the full programme and tickets, see here.