Ingmar Bergman called him the greatest director. Lars Von Trier calls him “God.” The legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who died in 1986 aged only 54, is one of the most influential in the history of the medium, a cinematic philosopher who was constantly at odds with the Soviet government, which saw subversiveness in his morosely dreamy films… as, indeed, there may well have been. Tarkovsky called his style of filmmaking “sculpting in time,” and the ambiguous moodiness of his work often encompassed a particular Russian-flavored tumultuousness on the small scale of a human life reflected against human history, full of tragedy, trauma, and torment. But Tarkovsky also deemed himself a maker of metaphorical films, and consciously aimed for elusiveness of meaning. So his films are very much rooted in the era in which he made them yet also offer plenty of psychological and emotional room to resonate with us today.
Well, I know all this about Tarkovsky now. When I was invited to a day of screenings of three of his seven feature films, all I had was a vague awareness of the fact his legend, but not the why. But I have determined to fill in some of the huge gaps in my film knowledge, so I gladly went along. It was a day filled with melancholy gloom, sometimes bewildering intellectual dizziness, and lots of unforgettably striking imagery, much of it contemplating how the natural world impinges on human constructs (there’s lots of rain dripping, often inexplicably indoors). I didn’t love all the films — more on them in a moment — but I was so glad for the opportunity to see them projected onto a big screen.
My day of screenings was in advance of everyone’s opportunity — in the UK and Ireland, at least — to do the same: Sculpting Time is a significant new Tarkovsky’s retrospective for the 30th-anniversary year of his death. Beginning today and running through the summer are a series of screenings and special events — such as Q&As — of all seven of Tarkovsky’s features, in new digital restorations. (New DVD, blu-ray, and VOD options are coming soon, too.) If you’re even the least bit curious about this director, I urge you to take advantage of this chance to see the films as they were meant to be seen. (If you’re already a fan, you don’t need any urging.)
Which films did I see? First up was Tarkovsky’s feature debut, 1962’s Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo) [Amazon UK DVD|Amazon UK VOD|iTunes UK|IMDb|Rotten Tomatoes|MRQE], which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year. (Tarkovsky won numerous prizes from all sorts of awards-giving bodies for his films.) This is a remarkable film that, at first, struck me with seemed like a temporal ambivalence. As 12-year-old Ivan (Kolya Burlyaev) makes his way across a blasted wasteland to a makeshift basement shelter where he reports to a young uniformed soldier, I thought: Is this the past? Is it the future, some sort of apocalyptic hellscape? The realization, a little later, that it is set during World War II, is momentarily startling yet not actually surprising — this sort of idea of what future apocalypses might look like hadn’t yet set in in the early 60s — and then deeply sobering: this is, in fact, an apocalyptic hellscape, the one that Russia really did endure during WWII. And Childhood is a subdued depiction of warfare as mostly a lot of waiting around for brief explosive action or, in Ivan’s case, cajoling friendly officers into letting him be a scout behind German lines: he’s so small that he’s an obvious choice for a spy who wants to stay hidden, or so he argues. The orphan kid — who several times describes himself as “jittery” — is a more openly shell-shocked version of all the adults around him.
Next up was 1975’s Mirror (Zerkalo) [Amazon UK DVD|Amazon UK VOD|iTunes UK|IMDb|Rotten Tomatoes|MRQE], Tarkovsky’s autobiographical — and deeply, sometimes abstrusely impressionistic — journey through one man’s life, from his carefree childhood “before the war” in an idyllic countryside through the upheaval of the war itself and into the present day, which is fraught with interpersonal conflict, such as arguments with his wife. The man is only barely glimpsed a few times, but we are meant to understand that as he lies dying from an unnamed illness, he is remembering his life… with all the lucidity that one might expect from such a state: that is, very little. What’s real and what isn’t, what’s past and what’s present is difficult to untangle: the same actress (Margarita Terekhova) plays both his wife and the younger version of his mother, for instance. Apparently this is the Tarkovsky film that Russians today like best of his — perhaps it reflects a certain Russian-ness that is hard for me to identify with. But Mirror is often seductively beautiful to look at: a brief image of a woman washing her hair is one of the most unexpectedly gorgeous things I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Last up was 1986’s The Sacrifice (Offret) [Amazon UK DVD|Amazon UK VOD|iTunes UK|IMDb|Rotten Tomatoes|MRQE], Grand Prix winner at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Made during his self-imposed exile from the USSR, Tarkovsky’s final film was produced in Sweden (and hence is mostly in the Swedish language, not Russian). Set over the course of less than 24 hours, this is, for lack of a better word, preapocalyptic: at a birthday party for actor turned writer Alexander (Erland Josephson), the sound of fighter jets flying low overhead and a TV news report herald the outbreak of possibly nuclear war. “I’ve waited for this day all my life,” laments Alexander, who’s around 60ish. With the party taking place in a remote, sparsely populated seaside area, there is no sense of any larger panic — or of actual warfare — beyond the sudden despair of the small group at the party… and it is very despairing indeed. The dread chill of the film is a stark reminder of the zeitgeist at the time, which was full of nuclear doom. The title refers to Alexander’s bargain with God — whom he had previously said he had no use for — to make everything right again in exchange for which Alexander will give up all he loves, including, if necessary, his very young son. Or is the sacrifice what he does in the process of making that bargain? Ambiguity about the reality of Alexander’s plight lingers — was it all just a literal nightmare? — even into the solid tangibility of the astonishing final scene. What constitutes the tragedy here is what is left open to question.
The other films in the retrospective — which I have not seen — are 1966’s Andrei Rublev, 1972’s Solaris, 1979’s Stalker, and 1983’s Nostalgia. Get all the info you need about cinemas and showtimes at Sculpting Time.