It’s hard to look up any list of great directors without finding this man. Known as the father of modern Russian cinema and one of the country’s most exceptional 20th Century artists, Andrei Tarkovsky was a filmmaker whose style was like none other.
Pure poetry in time is the best description for his films. His belief was that art best engaged its audience through an emotional lens rather than a logical one. Glacial pace and a respect for the spiritual are the hallmarks of Tarkovsky.
He only made 7 feature narrative films before his death at the age of 54. By then he had already established himself amongst the greats.
Ivan’s Childhood (1962)
Andrei’s first film was an adaptation of a short story in World War Two. Rather than focusing on any particular event, battle or atrocity in this film, it feels like Tarkovsky left in the broad strokes or the minute details, depending on your point of view. An officer falling for an army nurse, an old church acting as a make-shift based for tired soviet soldiers, a boy torn apart from the inside by war while also sharing with us memories of a simpler time.
One can see the seeds of Tarkovsky beginning to take hold, however this is what I would describe as a great entry point for anyone who would like to experience his work.
Andrei Rublev (1966)
Despite Tarkovsky’s reputation for having long slow narratives, this is his only epic in my opinion. Based on the life of a Russian medieval artist, the story flows through the life of the icon-creator Andrei Rublev in an episodic manner, exploring his journey as someone trying to reconcile his immense talent with his love of God, never having a simple answer.
Controversial in its native country for being the only Russian film to depict Christianity as an important player in the nation’s history, the film might also make people uncomfortable for some unmistakable animal cruelty. Despite this, this film has all the humanity and scale of a David Lean epic while also being a part of Andrei’s larger theological treatise.
Now partially filming in colour, Tarkovsky take an unexpected approach and makes a science-fiction film, possibly as a state-encouraged response to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A space station orbiting a planet which appears to have a consciousness of its own begins to fall into disrepair as its crew begin to lose their grip on reality. This honestly isn’t my favourite of Tarkovsky’s work. Quite possibly it’s because of the film’s more mainstream moments which don’t gel with some of Tarkovsky’s sensibilities or maybe the other way around. I would still recommend this to any cinephile, there is plenty to take from it.
The Mirror (1975)
The one that most people hear about first when Tarkovsky enters their lives. The Mirror is a true film poem about the life of Tarkovsky, or at least someone who seems to resemble him.
This is closest in feel to a David Lynch film. Nothing makes sense in a logical way, but unlike some of Tarkovsky’s earlier work, I really feel comforted while watching this movie. That might not be the most critic-like thing to say about a classic art-film, but this movie really feels like Tarkovsky finally fully came true on his promise of sculpting in time.
Another sort-of sci-fi effort from the Russian auteur. Some event has happened leaving a “Zone” which is too dangerous for people to stay in, but apparently has some spiritual truth at its centre and is filled with glorious overgrown nature, both of which seem absent in the sepia-tone futuristic land outside.
I feel uncomfortable watching Stalker and I think that’s part of the point. Not only do we get this unbearable tension as the characters move deeper into “The Zone” without knowing what’s at the end, we are confronted with a painful truth. However much we pretend to desire answers to the spiritual questions, we secretly are too afraid of them.
Tarkovsky left the Soviet Union to make this film in Italy. Here is a story of a Russian writer who comes to Italy to do research for a piece he is writing on a famous composer. Somehow this journey ends with him trying to help a madman prevent the end of the world by crossing a pool with a candle and not letting the candle go out.
What Tarkovksy often does is take two disparate things of different value and spiritually equate them on screen. This being the second of his films that I saw (and luckily on the big screen) this was the first time I engaged with this idea fully on an emotional level. Who knew that someone carrying a candle could leave me gobsmacked!
The Sacrifice! (1986)
My first experience with Tarkovksy. A Swedish Actor stays in a house with his family and friends as doomsday approaches. He must make an unthinkable sacrifice to protect the ones he loves.
This film leaves no doubt in the mind of the audience of Andrei’s skills. This is, like all of his work, a very personal film and it deals with some heavy spiritual content, including the marriage of paganism with Christianity, but I must admit I didn’t connect with this one as much as I have since connected with his other work. I would still highly recommend it.
Andrei Tarkovsky died within a few months of releasing The Sacrifice. While not everyone’s cup of tea as an artist, I have never seen anyone be so committed to spiritual cinema.
If I was to identify a specific idea in the director’s work it would be a desire for us to return to the dirt of life. His frames are immaculately composed, yet with a rotten, leaking feeling which reminds me that some of the most serene things in life might not be exactly clean.