It’s much easier to respect Andrei Tarkovsky than it is to like him. My first introduction to his filmography was Stalker, a vaguely Soviet-period sci-fi philosophical road movie about three men and their journey into a mystical, Area 51-esque underworld called The Zone. The Mirror, on the other hand, mostly keeps its feet firmly on the ground. A semi-autobiographical story, it has a strong sense of historical place (Soviet Russia in the 40’s, 60’s and 70’s). It feels like the more accessible of the two films, despite its complex, abstract nature, and it is a strange but chillingly beautiful movie.
The friend with whom I saw the film said it came into being because Tarkovsky was trying to exorcise his recurring dreams (he was successful.) It’s true, the story feels like a vast, puzzling experience of catharsis, though relief is mingled with the bittersweet dissatisfaction of loss.
The main character is Alexei “Alyosha”, a thinly veiled representation of Tarkovsky himself. Many of Alexei’s problems stem from his troubled past, and he (or the camera, at least) goes back to several periods in his life, attempting to untangle memory from truth. Tarkovsky’s tracking shots, moving slowly through the doors of a house, have an entrancing quality, drawing us into a world which feels four-dimensional, beckoning us inside a fully-realized, tangible space.
There is early childhood, in a blissfully green, lush valley. The first shot after the credits is of Alexei’s mother, Maria “Masha”, an immobile, graceful goddess gazing over a paradisiacal meadow. Her back is to us. She is inscrutable and unapproachable. Everything is still—a painting. A Madonna.
Then we see she is smoking a cigarette. The wrongness of it is shocking.
Soon after we learn there is no father. As the story progresses more is revealed about the distant Maria—we, and Alexei, see what her life is like (work, poverty, loneliness), what her world is like (war, famine, disaster)—and we see it through adults’ eyes. It isn’t always pleasant, and it’s definitely not tidy and coherent.
Through understanding his mother, Alexei hopes to understand himself, for his adult life is a reflection of his adolescence. This is quite literal in many ways. For instance, his mother and his ex-wife are played by the same actress, and the same boy that plays his son, Ignat, also plays Alexei’s younger self. Similar trends impact both families. There is even reflection of reality here. Tarkovsky’s real-life father reads slow, enigmatic poetry over the screen. Tarkovsky’s mother plays an elderly Maria. His wife plays a wealthy pawn-broker.
This is a movie that defies simple summaries, much less solutions. In embracing ambiguity it surpasses a similar film, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which wraps up its melodramatic ponderings with a pat, all-encompassing answer. Both paint expansive portraits of the world orbiting around a single family’s tragedy (Tarkovsky fleshes out the historical setting, Malick the cosmic setting), but I would argue that The Mirror’s refusal to pretend to any special revelation is the more truthful.
Of the two Tarkovsky films I have seen, The Mirror was more emotionally satisfying, perhaps because it does offer some release from the cycle of seeking. I’m weak; I like resolution. But either way, I recognize in both an attention to artistry, a quality and a significance, an invitation, not a demand, that marks all great art. There are scenes in these films so beautiful it is breathtaking. It is a challenge, but a challenge worth accepting.