Sculpting the Spirit: Andrei Tarkovsky's Cinematic Refuges

In an age of fast-moving images, the poetic cinéaste opens up tranquil terrain to pause and reflect.
Amreen Moideen

Mirror (1975).

One of the most classically poetic images of cinema alights on a consummately beautiful Margarita Terekhova perched on a frail wooden fence, gazing out into the evocative beauty of the Russian countryside, her fingers twirling around the cigarette she nimbly smokes. Partly waiting for the return of her estranged husband and partly doused in the fume of a contemplative reverie, her distinct poise has become emblematic of ruminative art and one of its major cinematic architects: Andrei Tarkovsky, the progenitor of the slow arthouse. His most personal film, Mirror (1975), presents a pensive reflection on a childhood spent during the war, a muted and measured observation of motherhood, and a tour of the many interpersonal relationships that one nurtures and stifles.

Tarkovsky’s oeuvre—rife with moments of stillness and minimal activity—is a delicate journey across the auteur’s spiritual landscape. It has been echoed in many a lecture hall that he believed the primary function of art to be the spiritual betterment of mankind, and in his own films, he tilled the land of his soul to do so. Likewise, he championed an emotional response to art as opposed to clinical, overly rational dissections of films. Mirror’s insouciance toward convention and genre, manifest in its flagrant rejection of plot, linear progression, and sensationalism, led it to a hostile reception. During one of Tarkovsky’s development meetings with the government’s artistic council, the filmmaker Vladimir Naumov disparaged Mirror as unintelligible, self-serving drivel. He chided the artist’s resistance to recommended edits by screaming at him: “Genius, genius! They tell you you’re a genius and you believe them! They tell you the film is a masterpiece and you believe them! Cursed be the day that Tarkovsky started making this film!” But for Tarkovsky, this misfire marked his departure from prosaic filmmaking, from the restrictions of genre and the fetters of logic, linearity, and lucidity.

Mirror was Tarkovsky’s attempt to repent his many inadequacies and shortcomings as a son, sibling, spouse, and father. The oneiric recollections of protagonist Alexei, a stand-in for Tarkovsky, articulate his inability to reciprocate feelings of love in the same measure it was offered to him throughout his life. Tarkovsky paints his internal disquiet in dreamlike, Brueghelian vistas, where a wistful, brooding mother levitates in dreams; where adolescents attend rifle practice during a time of war and unease; where siblings run through woods to embrace their father as he returns home. His distinctive visual grammar—the stringing together of dreams, memory, and newsreel footage; the casting of the same actors in multiple roles; and the detachment of dialogue from well-expounded contexts, woven together by Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry in voiceover—ultimately results in a film that implores not to be understood but to be felt, encouraging the viewer to surrender to intuition over reason. If Tarkovsky’s films are marked by taciturn characters tormented by modernity, it is because they are honest explorations of the self, wrestling with complex emotions while seeking spiritual refinement.

Stalker (1979).

Tarkovsky’s work affirms the totemic power of images when the world seems to have rendered them disposable, even meaningless. The irresistible urge to document everything on camera with excessive haste—whether mundane, awe-inspiring, or horrific—begs the question: do images endure? And when placed within social media’s swift channels of circulation, fickle digital landfills dictated by the marketplace, do images serve a purely transactional purpose? Instead, Tarkovsky’s films reinstate faith in pictorial representation. His visuals offer a contemplative haven from commerce, creating a searing, inspiring, and provocative interplay between the abstract and the concrete. He rejects the superficial dictates of the market in an effort to plunge inward, painstakingly sculpting the essence of the spirit. In an age of digital frenzy, it is as soothing as it is stimulating to watch his protagonists rove barren landscapes with hunched shoulders and heavy hearts, wandering a tranquil terrain for the soul to reflect.

Around an hour and fifteen minutes into Stalker (1979), the film’s three wayfaring characters, midway into their journey to seek the fabled Room where one's deepest desires take material shape, unanimously agree on a nap. They curl up into a siesta and then, in groggy and slowed-down speech, sink into self-reflection while feebly throwing taunts at one another. Drawing on for about eight minutes and comprised of meditative long takes, the sequence is placid enough to welcome its audience to slip into that same daze. Rich auditory textures enmesh the viewer in the life of the moment: the sound of water flowing in trickles and gushes; the dozing men’s rising and falling breaths, lengthy monologues, and thoughtfully timed silences. The scene’s languid pacing encourages viewers to oscillate between observing the characters’ exterior world and considering their inner complexities. Of all the provocation the film engenders, this lullaby of a sequence is an exercise in quiescence; it is a time to rest during a philosophically dense tale, but it is still intellectually engaging. Within this viscous, slow-moving cadence, time is felt in all its heft, divorced from all capitalist anxieties arising from its passage.

In his epic historical drama Andrei Rublev (1966), Tarkovsky posits a vital relationship between the spirituality of the medieval Russian icon painter and his blessed vocation: creating images. Tarkovsky frames faith as a fundamental artistic force, without which his protagonist is creatively paralyzed. With the swift loss of his faith after witnessing the carnage man inflicts on man, he loses the ability to paint. Without the solace of spirituality, he is no artist. The film, however, ends on a note of anticipation as Andrei gently resolves to pick up a brush again, then veers into an eight-minute epilogue—breaking from somber black-and-white into sudden vivacious color—showcasing sixteen of the actual Rublev’s icons. As a haunting composition by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov reaches its crescendo, the lively sequence compels the viewer to take note of the brushstrokes, the interplay of colors, and the fervent faith that went into the making of these vibrant and ornate paintings. The camera’s gaze is intimate, curious, appreciative, and thoughtful, carefully navigating the details of the icons, inspiring the rapture and awe that accompanies the artistic experience. It is not enough to passively watch this 205-minute-long epic; it is imperative to closely study and contemplate Rublev’s paintings. The film’s immersive perspective could captivate even the briefest attention span, conditioned by a culture of impetuousness.

Andrei Rublev (1966).

Perhaps the Tarkovskian model of visual poetry, best exemplified by the soulful introspection of Mirror, can remind us why we create and retain images in the first place. Is it truly for posterity, or because it realizes a semblance of human control over the ruthless stomp of time? Or is it, as it increasingly seems, for the projection of a curated self—a drawn-out, tedious battle to weave a narrative for ourselves through idealized images? What souls do these visuals stir? What spirits do they harness to inch toward goodness? The necessary pauses required for a careful examination of one's life are absorbed into a dizzying spectacle of beauty and speed. Tarkovsky’s embrace of slowness is a balm, a final defense against these forces. Even if Tarkovsky crusaded against cinema as escapist entertainment, there is a sense of refuge to be sought in his quiet storms, immersing the viewer in a sanctuary of quiet lulls and immersive soundscapes, offering the kindness of repose. In a culture as mercurial as ours, so fearful of even the slightest delay, Tarkovsky’s films dedicate themselves to duration, a vital tool for moving and refining oneself. They espouse patience in their treatment of images, and consequently, of experience—lived or imagined.

In Mirror, Anatoly Solonitsyn’s nameless, meek stranger melancholically rhapsodizes to Terekhova’s character: "Has it ever occurred to you that plants can feel, know, even comprehend? The trees, this hazelnut bush... They don't run about like us who are rushing, fussing, uttering banalities. That's because we don't trust the nature that is inside us. Always this suspiciousness, haste, and no time to stop and think." This tender reflection—a resounding reminder of the lasting harm that our hasty modes of survival inflict—is a healing caress for an open wound.

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