Featured: The Philosophy Of Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky made seven feature films before his passing in 1986, aged 54. Yet, in a twenty-odd year career, coming from a country that survived in part because of censorship of religion, the Russian Orthodox director installed films of the metaphysical and spiritual that granted the word Tarkovskian. Regardless of setting, Tarkovsky utilizes the same techniques that make his work a unique show. Slow, methodical, long, and beautiful, his repeated process of lulling the viewers into what he says wherever he is makes Tarkovsky a director who formulates his dreams and realism with plenty of time and does not droll on with box office receipts. He was a man about giving a new theory to why we exist.
It is about the subject and the theme, not the actor and the dialogue; he let the actors take care of that. Tarkovsky’s obsession with the metaphorical portrayal of life, the human desire, our past, and our fears. There is a minefield of melancholy the flies around the characters in his works, all that tampers with the reality and what we think is there. Tarkovsky goes for the reflexive style but does not make it obvious to us and we have to look at the alternative world presented to us but not to admire or explore but find anything that forces that reflection style into our conscious. Per the line from his sci-fi masterpiece Solaris,“We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.”
Face-To-Face With A New Reality
What happens when we look into these mirrors? Other people reflect back to the protagonists and give an emotional change that explores the deep fissures of life. His first feature, Ivan’s Childhood, gives us a basic lesson of innocence lost. A 12-year-old boy finds himself playing spy after seeing his family killed by the Nazis during the invasion of the Soviet Union, the same time Tarkovsky was at age 12. A child should not be in such a position, but this is not a dream as Ivan has to survive and grow up in such a world and pays the ultimate price in the end. In Solaris, Kris Kelvin goes to investigate a strange phenomenon but comes face-to-face with his dead wife. Why is she here suddenly? Is she even real? Kris has yet to grieve clearly, even though it has been ten years since his wife’s death. He may have psychologically blocked it, but must now come to terms in a very existential way.
In Stalker, many will see the long takes and the change of settings into Zone. The two men being guided through have their reasons for seeking Zone and finding the thing they most desire. Looking at the last two films he did, both being shot outside of Russia (and never returned due to constant harassment from officials), Tarkovsky has us becoming a writer in Italy, find no trace of a subject, and then struggles to comprehend to different worlds. For Nostalgia, it was his way of stating the lack of belonging to his home nation, yet desiring a return to the past; the main character is even named Andrei. In The Sacrifice, it’s about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust after war declared over the radio. It was the most petrifying thing in the post-war world where the nuclear arms race and a close-call in Cuba put that deep into our conscious.
Outside Our Realm
The first two films are history pieces, which set viewers back to an era unlike any other in which suffering was the theme. There is World War II, where a third of overall deaths came from this one area alone, and then the Medieval period where barbarians were at the gate. The Mirror is of something similar with each episode going to different areas, but it retains the contemporary style of a 360-degree spot within the forests, the dirt, and the countryside, nothing in or around Moscow. It was something that baffled many at first glance, but if one listens closely and spots the centerpiece of an almost plotless film (a boy who has to choose if he wants to live with his mother or his father), one can recognize the soundtrack of his father, who reads his poems out loud and has a verbal soundtrack to the feeling of the scene.
Solaris was considered the Russian response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is an absurd comparison because, even though it set in space, Solaris was not about space and technology as Kubrick’s 2001 was. The world of this mysterious planet is now a chamber that tightens the noose around our emotional state and how our deepest feelings can become physically real. Instead of being about the Russian glory in the space race, it is about the external forces once inside a planet that has hidden gifts to us. Stalker also puts us in the mystery of crossing from the black & white home to the colorful, yet dangerous territory under unknown peril. They are cutting through an area, cordoned off and dangerous, to get to a place called Zone. Not “the zone,” just Zone. What is in Zone? Why is this mysterious restricted site desired so heavily? It is a treacherous path, where the path cannot be seen but only sensed. Finally, in The Sacrifice, even on the isolated farm of Sweden perfect for a Bergman film (who Bergman loved and used his famous cinematographer Sven Nykvist), they cannot escape the fact that World War III in the form of a nuclear war.
Faith In Check
What made Tarkovsky’s references with religion so important is that the Soviet Union was an atheist state during its power. His favorite works came from Ingmar Bergman, Robbert Bresson, and Cary Theodore Dyer, all of whom incorporated themes of faith into their works. Still, the director remained very much an Orthodox Christian and was given a religious funeral after his death and buried in the famous Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Cemetery in Paris. Personally, I always wondered why faith and the secular cinema can’t reconcile and a film like Andrei Rublev would reflect that they could. Rublev is a look at art, faith, and survival during the Medieval times, especially during Tatar invasions between pure Christianity and paganism. “This is a portrait of an artist in which no one lifts a brush,” said film critic J. Hoberman. “The patterns are God’s, a close-up of spilled paint swirling into pond water or the clouds of dirt Rublev flings against a whitewashed wall.”
Faith is also a part of his last movie, The Sacrifice. The philosophical debate of God’s existence is brought upon when the protagonist Alexander says he no relationship with God and then vows to sacrifice – hence the title – everything he loves for the sake stopping a nuclear war, including his young son. This is straight from the parable of Abraham offering to sacrifice his son, Isaac, only to be given a ram that was sacrificed instead. Alexander loses his nerve in his attempt to kill others, burns down the house and his possessions, and then is taken away by paramedics. The last line ever to come out of Tarkovsky’s work is from John 1:1, in which the son, a mute who does not speak in the whole movie, gives his only line, “In the beginning was the Word.”
The realm of being Andrei Tarkovsky is continuing to look deep into the mysteries of life and touching upon the more sensitive buttons of society and of us. A lot of the movie’s elements came from his own life and his own walkabout in nature. I’d call it a third style, where it is not escapism but it is not realism but is philosophically diving, much like the works of Terrence Malick. I leave you with this two-minute excerpt from an interview he did in the 70s, something that could be repeated today’s to younger people who want to tell stories of a different kind like he did.
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