Timeless beauty of Tarkovsky's films

Film director I admire the most is Andrey Tarkovsky.

Andrey Tarkovsky was born on 4 April 1932 in a small Russian village Zavrazhie into a family of classical Russian intelligentsia of the time. His father was a celebrated poet Arseniy Tarkovsky, and his mother Maria Ivanovna Vishniakova worked as a proof reader at the printing house. His father left the family when Tarkovsky was three years old and he and his sister were brought up by their mother in very difficult circumstances. Tarkovsky admitted that his father's poetry had a big impact on his understanding of Russian literature and arts and his longing for his him and reflections on his childhood could be seen in some of his films.

Against all odds, his mother managed to put Tarkovsky through music and art school, giving him a proper education in those two fields. Tarkovsky went on to study direction at the famous VGIK, The Moscow State Institute of Cinematography. He graduated with honours and was hired by Mosfilm studio as a director. Excluding his shorts, he made only seven feature films: Ivan’s childhood, Andrey Rublev, Solaris, Mirror, Stalker, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice, of which six won several major international awards. While filming Nostalghia in Italy, he decided not to return to the USSR. His last film The Sacrifice was filmed in Sweden in 1986. He died on 29 December 1986 in Paris of lung cancer at age 54.

Tarkovsky was a well rounded artist, erudite in a true sense of the word. He was well versed in music and paintings, and this comes through so clearly in his films.

Tarkovsky was also uncompromising when it came to his vision, his ideas about what film is, what is its purpose and why he thinks one should not make compromises in this form of art. His wife remembered that he never bent under the pressure of the studio and in the end always got what he wanted. Tarkovsky also acknowledged that film is, sadly, dependant on money, as it needs lots of it to get made, but he also considered it to be “the most truthful and poetic of art forms”.

I find this uncompromising artist one of the greatest directors of all time, and I connect with his films on a metaphysical, emotional level. In his work, Tarkovsky tried to answer questions about who we are, what is our purpose in this world, the same questions I am posing to myself and do not find answers for. He did not either, but his films are a testament to the mind and soul of an artist who attempted to find those answers.

His poetry

A quiet late summer afternoon in Russian countryside. A lush green buckwheat field bordered by the forest and bushes. A line of thin wooden utility poles stretches diagonally in the background. A figure of a man dressed in black, standing in the middle, facing the camera. He is far away, looking at a woman he had just met, as if waiting for something to happen. Suddenly, a gust of wind sways the tall buckwheat, as if it was a wave in a vast ocean. The man lingers for a few moments and walks off.

This beautiful, poetic scene is from Mirror, Tarkovsky’s most personal and yet his least understood film. If one film could explain Tarkovsky’s poetics, it is this one. It has all the elements that appear in most of his works: non-linear story telling, philosophical themes, long takes, dream imagery and poetry, action happening outside of the frame.

Andrey Tarkovsky’s films cannot be easily defined simply because he never conformed to the so-called rules of filmmaking where the story develops along the usual lines of the three-part plot and it flows logically until it reaches its climax in the finale. Tarkovsky is said to have invented new cinematic language infused with “oneiric air”. He used the storyline only as a framework to explore much deeper ontological themes about human existence, man’s purpose in life and its meaning. At the time when the cinema was in service of the state ideology, he went introspect to tackle deeply personal subjects. Expressive audio-visuals, meticulous attention to detail in shot composition, interchanging colours, original music, use of poetry, symbols and dreams raise his films above the banality of life, thus transcending the material world and evoking in viewers the same deep feelings and emotions that other works of art do; a painting of a great master or a beautiful piece of music. Tarkovsky is by many seen as a great master of cinema, “the greatest of them all” as Ingmar Bergman boldly puts it, for whom cinema was “the most truthful and poetic of art forms” and not a tool for entertainment.

"When film is not a document, it is a dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally. Only a few times have I managed to creep inside" (Ingmar Bergman).

It is on this metaphysical level that one can connect with Tarkovsky’s work. For him cinema was the highest form of art, thus his responsibility as an artist was taken very seriously. For instance, let's see the beginning of Sacrifice, perhaps his visually most astounding film. In the the opening credits, in a stationary shot, camera is zoomed on a fragment of Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo Da Vinci, where we can see only the arm of the baby Jesus reaching out for the gift that one of the kings, kneeling down in admiration, is holding. The shot is accompanied by a profoundly moving prayer Erbarme dich from Bach’s St. Matthew’s passion. “Have mercy, my God, for my tears sake; look hither, heart and eyes weep before thee bitterly”. Once the prayer ends, the camera slowly moves over the painting, stopping on a lush tree top. It then cuts to a man planting a dead tree, “a symbol of faith”. The combination of music and images is incredibly moving. We are immediately pooled into the story which ponders over philosophical questions about human existence, our common future. Was Tarkovsky pleading with us to find salvation in faith, and refuse to be consumed by pointless materialism?

More than 30 years ago, in 1986 when The Sacrifice was made, Tarkovsky was deeply concerned with the state and future of humanity which, he thought, was plagued by empty consumerism. His main character Alexander is depressed and has lost his faith. His vision of the world is pessimistic, he laments that, “Man has constantly violated nature. The result is a civilisation built on force, power, fear, dependence. And all our technical progress has only provided us with comfort, a sort of standard. And instruments of violence to keep power. We are like savages!”

How true do these words still sound! We, as humans, have not changed for the better in the last three decades. If he were still alive, Tarkovsky would be profoundly disappointed and shocked at the amount of hatred towards the other, the xenophobia and degradation of morality. Still we are lucky to be able to escape the reality and immerse into the timeless beauty of his films.

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