The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky
Stories & Ideas

Thu 05 Jul 2018

The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky

Film Retrospective
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Melissa Acker


Writer Melissa Acker examines the artistic legacy and subtle beauty of Andrei Tarkovsky

Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema

Andrei Tarkovsky

The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–86) stirs something more than appreciation and admiration in his devotees. Ingmar Bergman once likened the discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film to a miracle.

Like many after Bergman and many after us, viewers continue to learn and experience new ways of understanding his cinematic notion of observable reality. A type of reality that renders the mundane miraculous and objects divine. The Russian auteur is iconic not only for the seven monumental features he delivered right up until his sudden death at 54, but also for his fervent belief in the spiritual nature of art and the small moments of revelation, much like the renaissance artists Brueghel and Vermeer, whom he truly admired.

In the mid 1950s during the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev’s Thaw, a period where repression and censorship were reversed following the death of Joseph Stalin, Tarkovsky studied under the famously free-thinking director Mikhail Romm. This opportune moment allowed and willed young Soviet directors to explore the “general through the personal”.

Thus came his debut feature and the Venice Golden Lion winner Ivan’s Childhood (1962). Tarkovsky’s interior mediation on the Second World War not only marked him as a forerunner of the burgeoning art cinema, concurrently taking place in Europe, but this was also the heart-warming introduction to the ethereal landscapes and inimitable elements of rain, mist, fire and wind that would come to characterise the director’s oeuvre.

The Kiss - Ivan's Childhood.jpg
Valentin Zubkov and Valentina Malyavina in 'Ivan's Childhood' (1962)

His ambition came to a screeching halt in 1966 when Soviet authorities banned the film Andrei Rublev (1966), an epic on artistic transcendence in the midst of abject violence and suffering.

When one is immersed in this cinema of aural and visual astonishment, all the little things come into play; from the strong light on water droplets and the game between shadows on ancient stone walls to the wind caressing a field of buckwheat. The Tarkovskian world is in spectacular abundance of these ordinary moments of creation and truth, glimpsed, missed and overlooked.

Despite the melancholy that resonates throughout Tarkovsky’s cinema, there is a radiant, warm and even fuzzy optimism that peaks through. In Andrei Rublev, the silence of the atrocity-haunted artist breaks in wonderment at a novice bell-maker’s leap of faith. The Mirror (1975) begins with the remarkable curing of a stutter and Stalker (1979) ends, not in enveloping despair, but with Beethoven’s 'Ode to Joy' and a disabled young girl’s telepathic movement of three glasses.

Tarkovsky directing 'The Mirror' (1975)
Tarkovsky directing 'The Mirror' (1975)

Our relationship with reality allows us to bear and interpret the ideas and judgements of these films. Our own struggle with the truth helps us to recognise it when we see it. Our real-life questions don’t always have answers and our dilemmas don’t always have resolutions. To make sense of the films and to respond to their strong inner coherence, we have to learn to ask different questions and to tolerate an unusual amount of narrative ambiguity and diversion into different narrative demands.

Because of this, Tarkovsky’s cinema requires multiple visits and search-throughs in order to extract the truths buried within. Seekers’ efforts are highly rewarded with glimpses of profound beauty and insights on personal doubts, fears and joys. It is a rare opportunity to be able to view a Tarkovsky film on a theatre screen as it was intended to be seen; large, bewilderingly beautiful and full of secrets.

– Melissa Acker

This article was originally published in 2014.