Twenty years after his death in 1986, Andrei Tarkovsky’s films still have the power to captivate, illuminate and mesmerise as if a static, messianic eye swoops down from the sky urging you to look deeper, think harder and act wiser.
The Russian film-maker’s world is generally a place of lost souls and heavy hearts with nature offering the only solace to humanity’s dreadful descent into war, capitalism and greed.
His first film Ivan’s Childhood is probably his most narrative-friendly as a 12-year-old boy sees his family killed by the Nazis and is then hired as a scout by the Russian army to infiltrate enemy lines. It has a poetic, minimalist quality and some stunning imagery – but also acts as a perfect introduction to his later, more challenging, work.
Then we have the majestic Andrei Rublev, a colossal, three-hour epic which explores Russia’s early 15th century and is laced with spectacular setpieces like the Tartar invasion, the Pagan stampede and the casting of the Bell. Many critics feel this is Tarkovsky’s best film because it has a purity and authenticity about it – and although it is great, there’s something about the ‘inner world’ of his later films that give them the edge.
Solaris, a cult classic, began this intriguing descent. It’s a dizzying, headbusting sci-fi that’s all about conscience, time and the unending quest for knowledge. It’s remains strong on repeated viewings but perhaps Tarkovsky was hampered by the sets, which meant he couldn’t explore the characters as deeply as he wished. ‘The rockets and space stations were interesting,’ he said. ‘But it seems to me now that the idea of the film would have stood out more vividly and boldly had we managed to dispense with these things altogether.’
Now things really get interesting with Mirror, a highly personal meditation on Russia, humanity, nature, time and family. It’s a film of profound emotional depth or utterly baffling depending on how generous you are in your cultural appreciation but I’d go for the former as it has some of the memorable images ever put up on screen.
Tarkovsky followed that up with his last film in the Soviet Union, the hypnotic Stalker, a film that I believe is his finest work because everything – the script, the soundscape, the industrial sets, the comedy (yes, it is funny) and the performances – are almost note perfect to create a slow-burning, intoxicating piece of art that gets deep under your skin and stays there. It’s mysterious ‘Zone’ has been much discussed and much celebrated but there’s so much more going on here – about science, faith and desire – that even a book wouldn’t do it justice (although Geoff Dyer in his book Zona did try!).
The Russian film-makers last two films Nostalgia and The Sacrifice were made in exile – but they are no worse for it as Nostalgia in particular is, I feel, one of his best films. It tells the story of a Russian poet in exile in Italy (a bit like himself) who longs for his old country and, therefore, find it difficult to engage with anyone or anything that would remotely constitute ‘normal life;. It’s a wildly haunting dreamscape with a richness and intimacy that is difficult to shrug off. The Sacrifice too, is a strong, final picture, which sees a man bargain with God to avert a nuclear disaster. Or does he? This is the thing with most of Tarkovsky’s works: the narrative is always secondary to the character’s spiritual crisis.
Ultimately, Tarkovsky’s films can all be said to be ‘time machines’ and ‘artworks’ because that was how his philosophy on cinema and creativity worked. It was a dismissal of anything extraneous or extraordinary as his lengthened frames saw the ‘magic’ in real life: nature, water, fire, rain, animals,, trees, humanity and so on. That’s what makes them special – because he demands the highest form of intellectual engagement from the viewer and the ‘spectacle’ – which would generally mean to excite or entertain – didn’t interest him.
Which may be a problem for some film lovers. But add in the staggering beautiful poetry of his father, Arseny Tarkovsky – which is read out in some of the films I’ve mentioned – and you have an all-round package of stunning, illuminating work that still has plenty to say on existence, love, faith and all the other intractable problems that make up our daily lives.
Those problems will never go away.
Nor will Tarkovsky’s films.