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The Films Of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 6, 2011 at 5:24AM

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.”
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Voyage in Time

Voyage in Time” (1982)
After years of facing untenable censorship in his homeland of Russia, Tarkovsky would defect to to Italy in 1982, making the the 1979-shot “Voyage In Time” documentary a formative snapshot of the filmmaker’s personal history. Visiting his friend, Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra -- the man responsible for Michaelangelo Antonioni's classic tetralogy from 1960-1964 -- the documentary is part location scout for “Nostahlgia” (he eventually settles on the desolate countryside of Bagno Vignoi), part Italian travelogue and part free-form conversation piece between two friends discussing the art of cinema and life. The pair discuss Tarkovsky’s favorite filmmakers -- Alexander Dovzhenko, Robert Bresson, Antonioni, Fellini, Jean Vigo, Sergei Paradzhanov -- give advice to younger filmmakers and broach topics such as Italian architecture, poetry and the “fiction” of narrative and action. While the conversation is interesting, it’s not especially illuminating for those that aren’t devout Tarkovsky-ites, though there are a few minor revelations. Tarkovsky claims he doesn’t enjoy genre or commercial films and in that sense says “Solaris” -- regarded as his best film by many -- is his least successful because he “could not escape from the [trappings] of the genre, from the fictional details.” However, in the case of “Stalker,” he believe it works because he “got rid of all the science-fiction signs completely. That gives me great pleasure.” Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, the rhythm is slow and meditative which somehow lends itself less to the documentary format than to his fiction films. As such, it’s really for hardcore Tarkovsky complete-ists only. [C+]

Nostalghia

Nostalghia” (1983)
A heart attack, an aborted feature, and egregious censorship, kept Tarkovsky from being able to work sanely in his homeland, but it was this, his first out-of-country production that confirmed his vehement refusal to return, a decision only strengthened when the picture machinations of the Soviet delegation successfully campaigned against his chances at a Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Co-written with Tonino Guerra ("Eternity And A Day," "Blow-Up," etc.), the film's spellbinding eye follows a Russian poet in Italy (the locations captured in cinematography that doesn't just love, but adores its subject). The poet is supposedly there researching deceased composer Pavel Sosnovsky, but instead he becomes enamored with a deranged vagabond he meets (Domiziana Giordano), and, filled with a longing for home and plagued by dreams in which he is the troubled nomad, he eventually commits to performing a spiritual ritual that will, according to the stranger, save the world from damnation. Abstract and opaque, still, there's no denying how entirely it reflects the filmmaker's inner conflict over abandoning country and family to work safely abroad. More than just a comment on some sentimental lust, the word “Nostalghia” means the same in both Russian and Italian, and so evokes the movie's observation of how two separate elements can compound, to make a greater/more extreme "one." This unity-from-duality theme is also evidenced by "Nostalghia" featuring not one surrogate for the director, but two -- the homesick, yet rational, artist, and the lunatic; both impossibly dedicated to a single philosophy. It is the contrast between these two that directly mirrors Tarkovsky the family man vs. Tarkovsky the auteur, but in a duality, one side usually prevails and here, rationality loses out: the poet dies, and the filmmaker, in real life, leaves his family for his art. "Nostalghia" can certainly be seen as a melancholic longing for home, but it can also be read as a highly self-critical work, full of remorse and castigation for choosing artistic freedom over kin. Either way, it's a gut-wrenching tour de force. [A]

The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky

The Sacrifice” (1986)
Completed shortly before his death from terminal lung cancer in 1986, Tarkovsky’s last film may be the apogee of everything he ever tried to achieve in cinema. Bergman’s fondness for Tarkovsky has been well documented and the feeling was mutual; the Swedish-set picture starred Erland Josephson -- a key Bergman actor who led several of the Swede’s pictures including "Scenes From A Marriage," "Autumn Sonata" and "Fanny & Alexander” -- and featured the painterly cinematography of Sven Nykvist. Faith and the absence of spirituality were always central Tarkovskian themes and both are examined and tested in this hypnotic morality drama. Josephson plays a journalist and former philosopher whose birthday is interrupted by the news that WWIII has erupted and mankind is but a few short hours away from annihilation. A devout atheist, in his despair, Josephson prays to God, even offering up his son’s life if war can be avoided. He sleeps with a witch to show his fealty to God, but the next day all is well and it’s unclear if the preceding events were just a dream. Shot in Tarkovsky’s customarily long takes (some that reach almost 10 minutes) the film clocks in at just under three hours and is perhaps the filmmaker’s most dream-like, in a career characterized by hypnagogic films. A gigantic house was built specially for the production and when cameras failed to capture its incineration in one long tracking shot, the house was then faithfully reconstructed and once again burned down to ground -- Terrence Malick and Jack Fisk would be proud. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, the film would received the Grand Jury award, and the FIPRESCI and Ecumenical Jury prizes. [A]

-- Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Christopher Bell, Oliver Lyttelton

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, The Essentials, Andrei Tarkovsky


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