Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Seven Films of Andrei Tarkovsky

As the story goes, a fortune teller told young Andrei that he would only make seven good films.  This collection puts together the seven feature films of Tarkovsky in a handsome box set for the first time.  But, alas, Tarkovsky had one film up his sleeve, a student film he made while at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), which was an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers.

Volkov notes in his book, The Magical Chorus, that Tarkovsky along with Brodsky were part of the "stilyagi" in the mid 50s and Tarkovsky was a big fan of Hemingway, who was being printed for the first time in the Soviet Union.  The film is included in the Criterion collection of The Killers, which features Robert Siodmak's 1946 classic, as well as the later 1964 remake by Don Siegel.

It is best to start at the beginning with Tarkovsky.  Ivan's Childhood is his most accessible film and was very popular in the Soviet Union when released in 1962.  War movies were the staple of the day, but Tarkovsky wasn't content to play in straight, much like his mentor Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying.  He apparently wanted Kalatozov's cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, to film his movie, but he was working on another film at the time, so Tarkovsky took on Vadim Yusov, who would work with Tarkovsky on Andrei Rublev and Solaris as well.

Andrei Rublev is perhaps his masterwork.  After the success of his first film, Mosfilm wanted Tarkovsky to do a historical film and he dug deep into Russian history to tell this tale of the famous icon painter.  Shades of Eisenstein here in using the past as an allegory of the present, as Tarkovsky explored the role of art in a totalitarian state.  Initially, the film passed the censors, but Volkov noted that when it was ready to be sent to Cannes, the censors had second thoughts and the film was shelved.  This frustrated Tarkovsky to no end, and he began looking for funding outside the Soviet Union.

Solaris features the great acting pair, Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis, who was one of a handful of Lithuanian actors to succeed in Moscow.  Critics often like to compare the film to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is quite a different story, based on Stanislaw Lem's novel by the same name.  Science fiction had become quite popular in the USSR, but here again Tarkovsky chose to explore the theme in his own individual manner.

Then came The Mirror with the great Margarita Terekhova and Oleg Yankovsky.  The film is kind of a Proustian exploration of the past, weaving together a set of reflections about a dying man.

Stalker was the last of his movies to be filmed in the Soviet Union.  He returns to science fiction in creating what appears to be a post-apocalyptic "zone" in which three men try to navigate the "mine fields" to get to a room, where one's secret hopes come true.  The story itself has a mythological past.

Unable to get the funding he wanted for his projects, Tarkovsky got Italian backing for his sixth film, Nostalghia.  It seems eerily similar to Stalker, but explores the idea of being removed from one's country.  Tarkovsky would stay in Europe, never to return to the Soviet Union.

Tarkovsky didn't consider himself an exile.  His frustrations were mostly over funding and control of his films.  From the beginning one sees a deep religious strain in his films, and no film more deeply explores this than The Sacrifice.  This is not an easy film to watch, as Tarkovsky explores the idea of impending doom.  He had moved to Sweden where he was being treated for cancer.   It also allowed him to be close to Bergman, who had been one of his major influences.

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