Quick takes on 5 Tarkovsky films

One director I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time is Russian Andrei Tarkovsky. I’ve read how his films can be very dreamlike or obtuse, and I tend to like pictures like that, with a lot of imagery. We’ll see how this goes!

Ivan’s Childhood was his first picture. It is about a young Russian boy named Ivan, who can’t be more than 10 or 12 years old, during World War II. He’s captured by Russian troops at the front with Germany. Lieutenant Galtsev tries to interrogate him to find out what he’s doing there, but Ivan won’t answer questions and says to contact “Number 51 at HQ” for orders. When Galtsev makes the call, he gets in touch with Captain Kholin. Kholin brings them all together and explains that Ivan is spying on the Germans across the front; he’s small enough to get in and out without getting caught (older Russian soldiers have been caught, and you can spot their bodies by the river with German signs hung around their necks as warnings). Kholin wants to end Ivan’s service and send him to military school, but Ivan wants to continue his own personal war, in vengeance with Germany for killing his mom and family. Privately, Kholin tells Gatlsev that Ivan has seen more tragedy than many grizzled veterans, and Tarkovsky does an amazing job of sharing his inner turmoil with us over the course of the film. This is a powerful picture, with amazing cinematography. When I finished it, I had to look up when exactly it was made, and it was 1962. I almost don’t believe that; this film doesn’t feel dated at all, and in fact, it could just as easily have been released last year and been viewed as a modern art film. Amazing movie, and we’re off to a good start! ★★★★★

Andrei Rublev is loosely based on the life of Rublev, a famous painter of Christian frescos in 15th century Russia. The movie depicts a half dozen or so vignettes, some seemingly unrelated at first, and deal heavily with Rublev trying to stay true to his moral code and faith in God. Already gaining a name for himself when the movie begins, Rublev tries to control his pride of his work and stay humble, sometimes with the help of those around him, as fellow monk Kirill is extremely jealous and tries undermine Rublev. A few of the scenes show Rublev’s striving towards a Godly live, such as when he encounters a pagan ritual one night, with naked commoners dancing in the forest and swimming in the river. There are also plenty of hardships along the way, as in when Rublev’s party is attacked by a local lord when they don’t do as he asks, and several have their eyes put out. Like in the previous film, the camera work here is incredible for 1966. There’s (I think) a lot of symbolism that I didn’t always pick up on my first viewing, but I’d be willing to go back and watch it again sometime down the line. Though at 3+ hours long, it won’t be too soon! It’s a rich and rewarding film, a bit Dostoevsky-like in its sermon-ish approach, but that’s not a bad thing. The only real issue I had was there’s some graphic violence during the raiding of a village, and especially some animal cruelty scenes (apparently this garnered a log of critique upon its release). The film wraps by switching from the black-and-white it has been all along, to color, to show off Rublev’s actual work, and it is beautiful indeed. The film’s depiction of religion, the Tatars invasions, and general poor views of authoritative figures got the film censored in the Soviet Union, but internationally, critics clambered for it after the success of Tarkovsky’s first picture, leading Russia to reluctantly release it. ★★★★

Tarkovsky’s next film was Solaris in 1972, based on a book by Polish author Stanisław Lem (which was also the source of Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version starring George Clooney). Though it mostly takes place on a space station, Solaris is less science fiction and more introspection, not too dissimilar in feel from Kubrick’s famous 2001, which preceded it by just 4 years. In the film, a psychologist, Kelvin, is sent to a remote space station orbiting the ocean world of Solaris. The station has been in orbit for decades while the crew continues to dwindle over time, many having returned to Earth over the years, leaving just 3 on board currently. Before leaving, Kelvin spends a day with his dad, as well as interviewing a former pilot on Solaris, Burton, who had returned many years ago after suffering from hallucinations on his assignment. Kelvin goes to the station, and immediately upon arriving, is struck by its poor condition; it seems no one is doing maintenance or upkeep, and it is slowing falling apart. On his first day there, he learns that the one crew member he knew, Gibarian, has just committed suicide, and the 2 remaining members, Snaut and Sartorius, are withdrawn and secretive. There are also fleeting glimpses of others on the station, who Snaut and Sartorius seem to ignore. When Kelvin sleeps that first night, he is awakened by a woman in his room. The woman is Hari, Kelvin’s former wife, which is obviously impossible. She doesn’t know how she got there, and is paralyzed with fear whenever Kelvin leaves her presence. Snaut finally comes clean, and says that Hari, and the others on the ship, are called “guests,” and they are people created from the crew members’ memories by the planet. More than just visions though, they seem to be very real, though they cannot die, healing very quickly from injury and even returning to life if killed. Yes, this creates a tight, thriller-like atmosphere around the halfway point of the film, but the movie doesn’t delve too much in the science-y “how come?” questions, instead focusing on the ramifications of having loved ones created from our memories. Things they consider is what makes us human, if not our thoughts and emotions, and also looks at the ideas of happiness, identity, and of course, love. Pretty deep stuff, but glorious in its depiction. I mentioned 2001 earlier, and while both offer deeper meanings for life, 2001 is cold by comparison; Solaris is full of emotion and ache. For me, this was the kind of movie that, as soon as it was over, I wanted to start it back from the beginning again. ★★★★★

Next up is 1975’s Mirror. I went into this one with a bit of trepidation, as I’ve read things like “frustratingly enigmatic” and “stream of consciousness.” If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you’ll know I generally dislike SoC in writing (for example, NOT a fan of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer). But for whatever reason, this film stuck with me. There is no real narrative to follow, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story. It is told by an aging poet named Alexei, possibly on his deathbed, as he looks back at key moments in his life. In particular, we see spots of him as a child living on a farm in rural Russia with his parents, later as a teen with a single mother after the dad left, and then as an adult with a divorced wife and child of his own. The movie jumps around between these timelines, and also interspersed throughout are dreams or images he is having. Though non-linear, the scenes definitely have a flow, and there are some beautiful, transcendental kind of moments here. Tarkovsky paints the events in the past as definitely from memory and not necessarily “as they happened,” for instance, he uses the same actress to play both Alexei’s wife and mom. He admits to his ex-wife that when he pictures his mom as a younger person, he sees the wife’s face. I’ll leave interpretation of that up to the licensed psychologists, but what a great film. I feel like it’s a puzzle that needs to be put together, but I do worry that if I were to watch it a dozen times, I wouldn’t get any closer to enlightenment. I’m giving it 3 1/2 stars, which is a lot higher than I would normally give a film of this type, and if I watched it again, would probably rate higher. ★★★½

Alright Andrei, you finally got me. I could not get into Stalker, supposedly his masterpiece, but even I have my limits. I love the premise: in some far-future dystopian time, there is a cordoned off area known as The Zone. We learn as the film progresses that this area had some calamity visit a couple decades ago, whether that be a war, alien invasion, or something else. Whatever happened has left it completely unlivable, with abandoned buildings and the remnants of war (high caliber guns, tanks, etc.) strewn about, all being overtaken by vegetation. Yet people enter, because in the middle of the The Zone is The Room, where supposedly anyone who enters has their desires fulfilled. A group of people (Stalkers) knowledgeable about the changing dangers of The Zone lead would-be wealth-seekers and people without hope through The Zone and to The Room. Sounds great doesn’t it? Unfortunately this film is slower than slow and will test even the hardiest of patiences. The plot revolves around the lead, simply called Stalker, leading two strangers, Writer and Professor, into The Zone, and the movie is mostly their dialogue about why people seek out The Room, and their motives. The visual landscape is great. Shot on location at abandoned factories and power plants, it has a forgotten world kind of feel, strangely foreboding as it was filmed 7 years prior to the Chernobyl disaster which would create its own abandoned Exclusion Zone. But those views were the best part of the film for me. Stalker would be Tarkovsky’s final Soviet film; he would leave the country to do a film in Italy in the early 1980’s, and another afterwards in Sweden, and never returned. I hope to visit his last 2 films before too long. ★½

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