Sunday, June 02, 2013

146. Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Zerkalo” (Mirror/The Mirror) (1975): An appraisal of a movie that filmmakers have rated as one of the 10 best movies of all time

Sight and Sound, the official journal of the British Film Institute, conducts two polls for 10 best films ever made--one for top film critics and one for major film directors. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror figures in the second list as no.9 in the 2012 poll. Knowledgeable film critics would not be surprised—because any of the seven feature films of the acclaimed Russian director is truly a classic, each growing in stature by the year.

Mirror, is indeed a film that can provide immense satisfaction to a patient, intelligent viewer interested in good cinema, art, classical Western music and Russian literature. The movie has so much to offer that each patient viewer can take away a slice of entertainment from this film that differs from another slice. That is perhaps the reason for Tarkovsky (1938-86) being increasingly revered with time by new generations of filmgoers. Each of his films is spiritual, meditative, critical, and mesmerising. In an interview, Tarkovsky stated “It makes no difference to me how the public receives and interprets my films. I make films in such a way as to create certain spiritual state in the viewer” in Andrei Tarkovsky Talking, "Cencrastus" 1981 (2) [Pol. trans. Jadwiga Kobylinska]. That statement is not very different from the views of contemporary masters of cinema such as Terrence Malick or Carlos Reygadas. But Tarkovsky is intensely Russian and close to the values of the Russian Orthodox church.

For those readers who have not seen the film, a word of caution: Mirror is a very complex autobiographical film of Tarkovsky reflecting on his memories, good and bad, from childhood to adult life. Memories need not be precise but can be associated with events and epiphanies that telescope to reveal the director’s opinion on art, music, literature religion, marriage, family, politics and religion. The film is akin to many similar complex autobiographical films—Frederico Fellini’s 8 and a half (1963), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and almost the entire body of cinematic works of Raul Ruiz. For those viewers who find Malick, Ruiz and the later works of Fellini difficult cinema to enjoy will definitely find Mirror a work that is too formidable to easily appreciate.  This review attempts to unravel and demystify the layers of dense dissemination of views from the director for a global viewership, while trying to gingerly sidestep the Soviet censorship critical of the contemporary state viewpoints at that time.

Facts vs. memories in Mirror

Again for those readers who have not seen the film, Mirror does not have a plot, it does not contain any violence or sex, and it does not follow linear (chronological) narration. To further confound matters for the viewer, the lead actress Margarita Terekhova plays two distinct characters: the narrator Alexei’s (the director’s alter ego in the film) mother and Alexei’s wife, separated by a generation.  To make matters more complex, the viewer never sees the adult Alexei, only hears him (the voice of the gifted thespian Innokenty Smoktunovsky, who played the lead in Kozinstev’s major award-winning film Hamlet made in 1964 a decade before Mirror was made). An informed viewer will find another amusing and confounding fact:  Tarkovsky’s real-life mother  (Maria Vishniyakova) does appear in the film as his aged mother replacing Ms Terekhova in a few sequences; Tarkovsky’s real-life father Arseny Tarkovsky (1907-89), a major poet of Soviet Russia, narrates his own poems on the soundtrack of Mirror but is visually represented by an actor who resembles him; Tarkovsky’s real-life second wife, Larisa Tarkovskaya, appears in an interlude as a housewife with a lovely male child who buys a set of earrings from Alexei’s  mother, and finally Tarkovsky’s  real-life step-daughter (Olga Kizilova) appears as a red-haired girl who is a love interest of Alexei. While any lesser director would have let the film drift into a typical home movie, Tarkovsky elevates the film to a sublime state of reflection (hence the title Mirror) on the importance of family and spiritual life for the viewer, encouraging the viewer to notice similar elements visual and aural that one might have experienced in one’s own life.

Margarita Terekhova as mother...

A valid question for any viewer of Mirror would be to question Tarkovsky’s decision to cast actress Margarita Terekhova as both his mother (in her younger days) and his wife who has borne him a son Ignat (as in Tarkovsky’s real-life, his first wife Irma bore him a son Arseny Jr.) and is divorcing Alexei. For Tarkovsky, his mother and his first wife were crucial figures in his life, more than his father Arseny Sr. who was away in the army and hardly an influential father figure in spite of being a poet of repute.  (Terrence Malick watchers will see a parallel strand in The Tree of Life, where the son is influenced by the mother, rather than the father.)  Even more confusing for Tarkovsky watchers is the fact that his second wife Larisa, who appears in Mirror, never divorced him and had a son with Andrei Tarkovsky called Andrei Tarkovsky Jr. Larisa, the second wife, is even buried alongside Tarkovsky in France. Evidently, the wife and son of Tarkovsky depicted in Mirror refer to Irma (Tarkovsky's first wife)  and their son Arseny Jr (whose alter ego is Ignat). Armed with these factoids, Mirror becomes less of an enigma for the casual viewer.

..and Margarita Terekhova as wife

The resemblance

Somewhere half-way into the film, Alexei’s divorced wife looking at photographs of herself with Alexei’s mother notes that they resemble each other--a comment to which the adult Alexei expresses surprise.  But the casting of Margarita Terekhova as young Alexei’s mother and adult Alexei’s wife by Andrei Tarkovsky send opposing messages to the viewer. The resemblance may not be merely physical but at a mental level—both love Tarkovsky and he realizes this but does not respond as he ought to have. Like his own father Arseny Sr., the poet, who had very little exposure to his son in his formative years, Andrei Tarkovsky’s alter ego Alexei finds that his son Ignat (alter ego of Andrei’s son Arseny Jr.) is also not comfortable with him and prefers his mother’s company to his father. It is evident that both the women (played mostly by the same actress) love their respective husbands who are physically and emotionally far away. Both are attractive young women and their respective predicaments bring tears to their eyes. But the intelligent director points out the single difference that separates the two women—his mother could be patient and reflective (the conversation between the doctor and her, preceding the mention of Chekov’s Ward no.6) while the wife is always in a hurry (the conversation between her and Ignat after she drops the contents of her bag in her rush).

Three profound sequences in Mirror

While critics have written extensively on Tarkovsky’s fondness for the sound of falling water droplets, fires, sudden wind and rain that appear and disappear without much reason, as do birds, dogs and horses (there are no horses in Mirror) in all his major films, except perhaps as epiphanies of a Joycean kind, three exceptional and unusual sequences in Mirror stood out for this critic.

For the doctor, "we are not trusting nature in us, we have no time to stop and think"

The first sequence of importance is the meeting of the doctor and Alexei’s mother sitting on the wooden fence smoking a cigarette.  The scene has a grown-up Alexei introducing the scene through a narration. Yet we see later on that Alexei is a tiny tot sleeping with his sister on a hammock at that time. If Alexei was sleeping and so young, how does one explain that the grown-up Alexei could recall the event so vividly? And interestingly during the interaction between Alexei’s mother and the doctor, Alexei’s mother glances back at her sleeping kids and at that moment Alexei’s eyes open briefly. But most of all, the intriguing conversation veers to trees and roots. The doctor speaks of “not trusting nature in us, we have no time to stop and think..” Then comes the most intriguing response from Tarkovsky’s /Alexei’s mother “What about Chekov’s Ward no.6?” That one brief statement/rhetorical question is amazing. How many of us in a similar situation meeting a stranger would bring up Chekov’s fascinating tale of a doctor in charge of a lunatic asylum being trapped as an inmate? And the doctor’s response after talking of people “not having time to stop and think” is briefly stumped but then responds “Chekov made it all up.” This innocuous sequence is probably the most loaded conversation in the entire film—in case the viewer is familiar with this particular work of Chekov and the socio-politics of Russia at the time Mirror was made.

Isn't that Leon Trotsky on the wall in the printing press?
The second sequence of importance is the one where young Alexei’s mother rushes to the printing press to check if she had unwittingly let an error slip into print. While most viewers would be pulled into figuring out the outcome of the search whether a major error has been made, Tarkovsky’s camera goes past a photograph on the wall of the printing press that resembles Leon Trotsky, who is a major Communist figure in Russia but fell out with Stalin and was assassinated in Mexico at the behest of Stalin’s government. At the time Mirror was made, Trotsky’s writings were not allowed to be published in the Soviet Union—they were only re-released in the late Eighties. Tarkovsky skirted the censors by not making political statements but this innocuous visual tells a story by itself about the director. Those who spotted this detail would have had a quiet laugh.

The third sequence of importance in the film relates to young Ignat’s conversation with a strange lady drinking tea in his apartment. She appears and disappears. She specifically asks Ignat to read Pushkin’s letter to Chaadayev and it is a conscious lesson on the history of Christianity for the Russian “soul.”  It mentions the division of Churches that is crucial for appreciating the role of the Russian Orthodox Church for Tarkovsky’s spiritual growth. It mentions the separation of the Russian Orthodox Church from every event that shook Christianity in Europe. Ignat’s parents had earlier recalled the burning bush in the Bible that appeared to Moses as they watch a younger Ignat burn some books from a distance.  (To understand the concept of the Russian “soul” in cultural and religious terms further, this critic recommends Tarkovsky’s early collaborator and filmmaker of substance Andrei Mikhalkov Konchalovsky’s recent essay on the subject.)

Family and its role in Mirror

I think my father had no influence on me, inner influence. I owe everything mainly to my mother. It was she who helped me find myself,” reveals Tarkovsky in an interview with Jerzy Illig and Leonard Neuger (to be found on Tarkovsky made Mirror while his mother was alive assuming he was making a film about himself but much later, after his mother’s passing, he realizes that the film was equally about his mother as well.  In spite of all these comments, there are shots of the father figure who is caring. Arseny Sr. returning from the army on leave hugs his two children. Alexei in the opening lines of the film after the credits speak of waiting for someone to turn after the bush towards their home—and if someone did turn it would be their father.  And the scenes of Alexei’s father washing the hair of his mother and the levitation scene later on are indicative of the spiritual uxorial bonding between man and wife (and the lack of it when the mother is forced to kill a chicken in the absence of the husband). And in spite of Andrei Tarkovsky ostensibly devaluing his father, he uses him to read out his poems extensively in Mirror. The very fact that Mirror deals with Irma Raush and the son of Tarkovsky through her after their divorce, is indicative of Tarkovsky’s views on marriage (and his latent love for his first wife even after his divorce!).  Even the proof-reader Liza admonishes Alexei’s mother on her independent views and states unequivocally “You will make your children miserable.”  Viewers of Mirror will recall that young Alexei wakes up from a dream crying out “Papa!” The father might not have always been physically present but occupies a significant space in Tarkovsky’s life and the film Mirror through the poetry of his father.

Role of documentary footage in Mirror

A first time viewer of Mirror would wonder at the relevance of the opening black and white footage of a young boy with a speech defect being cured by a doctor using hypnosis, especially when you note the boom's shadow is obviously visible in the frame. One would wonder how a renowned director could have made such a poor sequence. Tarkovsky uses this sequence to declare metaphorically that he (the director) can now speak using the medium of “cinema” without any speech impairment. Much later, Tarkovsky stated in an interview with Jerzy Illig and Leonard Neuger ( “For me this is almost like a prayer in which my own "I" has no significance. Because the talent bestowed upon me was given from on high and — if I'm indeed given this talent — I'm somehow distinguished. And if I'm distinguished, it means I should serve it, I'm a slave, not the centre of the universe — it's all clear.

Documentaries were useful for Tarkovsky to interpolate in his films made in Soviet Russia since he was making these movies using the State’s finances and officials were pleased to see the documentaries as propaganda but for Tarkovsky to weave in the poems of his father Arseny Sr. and bring in his innate pride of the Russian culture through literature and history. Tarkovsky in the same interview stated “You'll go to the pictures where you'd rather watch a Spielberg film; and if you go to a bookshop, you'll buy a comic or some bestseller or other which one ought to buy. That's all. You won't buy Thomas Mann, you won't buy Hesse, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky. See, this is it: you can buy everything. Yet in order to absorb culture one has to make an effort equal to artist's own when he was creating his work. And this won't even occur to such consumer. He thinks: I can go and buy; all I have to do is pay. This is where the lack of spirituality leads. It won't occur to him that art is aristocratic — in the spiritual sense of the word, I repeat, God forbid I should use it in any other sense.” Therefore, in Mirror, during the conversation of Alexei and Alexei’s divorced wife, where Alexei suggests she should get married, the wife reveals the name of her lover to be Dostoyevsky, a writer who cannot get his works published. It is a subtle play on the predicament of writers and artists in Russia at that time, more than the particular individual.

Levitation in Mirror

"Manifestation of love on screen"

The scene in Mirror (and in Sacrifice) where Alexei’s father is stroking the hands of his wife who is seemingly suspended in mid-air is best explained by the director himself who explained it thus:  “Why do I so frequently include a levitation scene, a body rising up? Simply because the scene has a great power. This way things can be created that are more cinematic, more photogenic. When I imagine a person suspended in mid-air, it pleases me.. I find myself filled with emotion. If some fool asks me why in my last film people float up in the air, I would say: “It’s magic”. If the same question came from someone with a more acute intelligence and poetic sensibility, I would respond that for these characters love was not the same thing as it was for the author of Betty Blue. For me love is the supreme manifestation of mutual understanding, and this cannot be represented by the sexual act. Everybody says that if there is no ‘love’ in a film, it is because of censorship. In reality it is not ‘love’ that’s shown on screen but the sexual act. The sexual act is for everyone, for every couple, something unique. When it is put into films, it’s the opposite.

Finally, is Tarkovsky’s Mirror his best work? This critic rates Solaris, Stalker and Sacrifice as superior works of cinema compared with Mirror, when appraised as a total cinema experience.

P.S. Readers of this blog will recall this critic’s admiration for both Malick and Tarkovsky.  The author of another blog “The-Tarpeian-Rock” has provided several superb examples of Malick’s imagery in The Tree of Life that recalls Tarkovsky's well-thought out selection of images in Mirror. Mirror and The Tree of Life are both among the author's top 100 films of all time.Viewers who have seen Tarkovsky's Mirror will note several points of convergence in the scene where the baby Alexei's mother meets the doctor who has lost his way and falls down while sitting on the fence and the scene in Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu's Milk, (reviewed on this blog earlier) where the postman falls down from his bicycle while making small talk with Yusuf's mother. Both films are semi-autobiographical. In both films, the rear part of the respective mother's head is underscored in close-up while opening the scene. Tarkovsky's Solaris, which preceded Mirror, is reviewed elsewhere on this blog.