Three’s Company

Ara H. Merjian on Andrei Tarkovsky

Left: Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris, 1972, still from a color film in 35 mm, 167 minutes. Right: Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 205 minutes.

WHEN INGMAR BERGMAN said of Andrei Tarkovsky that he had invented a cinematic idiom “true to the nature of film,” what did he mean? Of course, the “true” nature of cinematic language itself remains—quite rightly—the subject of sharp, perennial debate in film theory. At the very least, Tarkovsky’s body of work can be said—in just seven examples—to have informed those polemics with compelling purpose. The Anthology Film Archives’ “Tarkovsky X 3” program presents three films at the core of the director’s (already compact) oeuvre—a primer of sorts to his best-known feature-length films.

In both its religious subject matter and its thinly veiled paean to artistic freedom, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, tested the boundaries of Brezhnev-era aesthetic imperatives. Notorious problems plagued the film’s production; it went through several edits and various iterations before finally being screened in the Soviet Union in 1971 (a different version won a prize at Cannes two years earlier, as, in turn, would Solaris [1972]). Yet despite Tarkovsky’s embattled dodging of Soviet censors, he is perhaps not the consummate countercultural dissident that Western critics or historians might make of him (especially given the increasing shortage of “subversive” Soviet cinema since the fall of the iron curtain). As the art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson recently noted in his volume on Moscow Conceptualism, Tarkovsky enjoyed decided approval among the Soviet intelligentsia. Imbued with a mystical and somewhat wistful melancholy, Tarkovsky’s immersive long takes often match in style his films’ absorptive thematics. That absorption is not, to be sure, solely the domain of medieval archaisms, as in Andrei Rublev; one of the most notable scenes in Solaris—the more cerebral Soviet answer to American science fiction—is a highway drive, by turns hypnotic and anxious (with a nervous sound track to boot). The Mirror (1975) renounces a strict narrative for more paratactic, personal evocations, loosely stitched in a kind of cinematic stream of consciousness.

Tarkovsky’s subsequent collaboration with Tonino Guerra, as well as his marked influence on directors such as Sergei Paradjanov, naturally remain outside the parameters of this tight program. But the range of his subjects and narrative approach in even these three works betray the unflinching cinematographic sensibility—with equal attention to the autonomy of images and the rhythmic momentum of narrative—for which Tarkovsky remains a legend.

“Tarkovsky X 3” runs March 19–21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.