The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman famously intoned in his 1987 autobiography, “The Magic Lantern,” that discovering Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s work was, “A miracle. Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
In 1987, a few months after Tarkovsky’s passing Akira Kurosawa would praise his “unusual sensitivity [as] both overwhelming and astounding. It almost reaches a pathological intensity. Probably there is no equal among film directors alive now.” And experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage was practically smitten, chasing him down at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 to screen his work and calling him, “the greatest living narrative filmmaker.”
Accolades for Tarkovsky, one of Russia’s most influential filmmakers, are generally glowing plaudits, inspiring an ardor that would find the cult director’s work examined and studied for years. But almost equally zealous are his detractors; audiences and critics who find his slow, languid, inscrutable work boring and impenetrable. Such wildly divergent adore-him-or-loathe-him opinions can only mean one thing: that Tarkovsky’s films represent the apotheosis of a certain kind of filmmaking and ultimately your predisposition to like that kind of film conditions your reaction to Tarkovsky. Even those who hate slow, meditative, dreamlike films cannot deny Tarkovsky’s mastery of the form. And with film history constantly in a state of revision, Tarkovsky’s work, like trickling water looking for an exit, always finds avenues for re-appreciation. This week, Kino International releases his final picture, “The Sacrifice” on Blu-Ray, and earlier this year in May, the Criterion Collection -- which has three of his films in their catalogue -- released his sci-fi classic, "Solaris" onto the Blu-format.
Endlessly fascinated by the spiritual, the metaphysical, the texture of dreams and memory, Tarkovsky eschewed conventional narrative and plot, and instead sought to illuminate the essence of the unconscious through a patient, enigmatic and reflective cinema that for many borders on poetic divinity.
While their methods and aesthetics are distinctly different, one wonders why Terrence Malick’s films and similar big-picture meditations rarely come up in conversations about Tarkovsky. There does seem to be a certain kinship between their work, though it’s unlikely the Russian filmmaker would ever have deigned to include a voiceover that literally asks each metaphysical question aloud; it was more his style to pose these often existential riddles implicitly, letting the imagery do the work, quietly, dreamily.
Creating only seven features in twenty-four years, Tarkovsky allowed his films to breathe, and then some -- they are often characterized by their exorbitant length (“Andrei Rublev” is 3 hours and 25 minutes), their unhurried pace and the use of extended tracking shots that could last from 7-10 minutes, all of which habitually lent his pictures a somnolent, hallucinatory, hypnotic atmosphere. Tarkovsky believed cinema was the only art form that could truly preserve the flow of time -- which perhaps explains the length of his films somewhat -- and while his mesmeric dream tenor and sedative pacing can send the average moviegoer off to sleep, his “sculpting of time” ethos (the name of his posthumous 1989 book) generally inspires awe, wonder and a sense of beautiful ambiguity in those with patience and curiosity enough to give themselves over to the experience. As John Gianvito put it in his 2006 Tarkovsky Interviews book, the corpus of his work is the "near-messianic pursuit of nothing less than the redemption of the soul of man."
Not many filmmakers have been as dauntingly intellectualized as Tarkovsky, but wary novices take note: his expressive first feature, “Ivan’s Childhood
” shows glimmerings of his trademark flourishes and themes, but finds the director at his most accessible, its almost-linear narrative coming in at an efficient 95 minutes. Ivan, played brilliantly by Nikolay Burlyaev
, is a young Russian boy with an angel’s face and a lion’s heart who, orphaned by war, becomes a scout for the Soviet Army. He dreams, he makes-believe, he rebels against the well-meaning protection of his elders -- in short, he is a child, in a time and place that has scant respect for childhood. The story is simple and devastating, but what the myth of Tarkovsky (his films are “difficult” and “worthy”) may not prepare you for, is the sheer kinetic joy to be gleaned from images which, through camera placement, choreography or the luminous lighting of a face, are unlike anything else you’ll have seen. To invoke the Malick comparison, this is, like “The Thin Red Line,” a war film apart, but ironically, considering he was working under a communist regime, it is Tarkovsky’s film that is the more individualistic and personal. Where Malick created a chorus, a collective wartime unconscious, Tarkovsky renders “Ivan’s Childhood” as a sharp, bittersweet portrait of one boy: his body, his face, his dreams, his memories and all the other things we lose if we lose just this one innocent. Because ultimately, it’s a film not about childhood, but about childhood’s end; in the form of Kholin, the dashing officer who befriends Ivan but has never himself grown up; or Lt. Galtsev, whose own boyish, handsome face becomes scarred and haunted; or little Ivan whose childhood ends, it seems, several times over, and possibly every time he wakes up. Beautiful and sad, and punctuated with images that linger in the mind, “Ivan’s Childhood” is perhaps most remarkable for being a debut that its young director would go on to top repeatedly, yet being, in itself, a wonderful film. [A-]
Considering that cinema is now firmly established as an art form, it's curious that it doesn't really deal well with art as a subject: films about writers, musicians, painters and even other filmmakers tend to be simplistic and reductive. The great (in every sense) exception is "Andrei Rublev
," which, across a three-hour-plus running time, episodically dramatizes the life of the great medieval Russian painter of religious icons. But don't make the mistake of thinking that will mean the film itself is picturesque: the world Tarkovsky depicts is brutal, senseless and chaotic (the famous death of a horse scene ensures it's not a film for animal lovers). But like his protagonist, the director finds beauty in the darkness, from the flight in a hot-air balloon in the film's prologue, to the astonishing, unbroken wide shot of the bell being raised at the climax, the incident that convinces Rublev to return to painting. Most importantly, it's a film about the role of an artist in the world around him: it's clear from the arrest of a jester in an early scene that this is no happy climate for the creative type, and Rublev watches without complaint, but, after turning away from art for much of his life, he's eventually persuaded that what he does has real value, that it is a necessity. And when the end of the film shows Rublev's work (the only part of the film in color), no one could disagree. Unsurprisingly, the authorities weren't happy with Tarkovsky's finished film: it wasn't released in the Soviet Union until 1971, in a cut-down edit, and only made it to the States two years later in an even more brutalized version. But the Criterion Collection
released the original cut in 1999, solidifying the film's reputation -- The Guardian last year voted it the second greatest of all time. Fun, slightly baffling fact: co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky
went on to direct "Tango & Cash