“I sit beside the fire and think
Of people long ago
And people that will see a world
That I shall never know
But all the while I sit and think
Of times there were before
I listen for returning feet
And voices at the door”
– J.R.R. Tolkien
What is a filmmaker’s relationship to time? Within the span of a few hours they can explore everything from the history of the universe to the fleeting brevity of a moment. They may allow events to unfold in a linear fashion, straightforward, even in realistic time, or they may alter them, warp them, jump them, chop them up and re-arrange them. Time is a malleable tool in their hands, one with limitless possibilities that can be immediately present, stunningly transportive, or even both. In his 1975 masterpiece, Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky has created a powerful exploration of this relationship, a film that baffles and challenges the mind and arrests the eye. A reflection on the history of his homeland, the lives of his parents and ancestors, and our connection to our past, ZERKALO is at once enigmatic, personal, and quietly captivating. Still rich with mystery even today, it sheds a fascinating light on Tarkovsky himself and his understanding of the nature of the human experience.
Opening with a young man switching on a television set to watch a stammerer attempt to be cured of his speech impediment, it’s a prologue both instantly compelling and totally bewildering, a precursor for the visual feasts to come. Leaping forth through picturesque landscapes and haunting interiors, it throws any semblance of chronological assembly to the wind immediately. Switching between a prewar countryside, the midst of the conflict in the 1940s, and the post-war era of the 60s and 70s, it spans decades to weave a tapestry of the memories of middle-aged poet as he lingers on his deathbed. News reel footage, voiceovers reciting poetry, and some of the most stunning images committed to celluloid are assembled to provide us glimpses into the dying man’s life to this point, his quaint and somewhat impoverished childhood, his militarization at a young age, and his strained relationship with his wife and son. They merge together through imagery rich and abstract, turning to reflect on one another across eras, a meditation on how life changes and repeats, like the structure of his own poems.
As dense and open to one’s own interpretation it is, equally fascinating is its connections to Tarkovsky’s own life and relationships. The memories of both mother and father, in presence and in absence, seem to have been a great influence on Terence Malick’s equally impenetrable magnum opus THE TREE OF LIFE, a film also notable for its vast scope and autobiographical ties. Here the father figures are largely offscreen but still felt as if through the expression of Tarkovsky’s camera and minimal dialogue. In fact, the poetry is that of Tarkovsky’s own father, Arseny, as well as read by him, and their relationship to the visuals may or may not indicate a film narrative based on Arseny’s own memories of his fading life. Not to be outdone, the actress portraying the poet’s mother in her later years is none other than Tarkovsky’s own mother, Maria Vishnyakova, though the younger Maria, as well as the poet’s wife Natalia, are played by Margarita Terekhova. An actress of both stage and screen, Terkhova is entrancing with minimal dialogue, as bewitching in performance as Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s silent 1928 film. Doubling up once more on casting, Ignat Daniltsev portrays both the poet Alexei in his adolescence, as well as Alexei’s son Ignat, possibly the stand in for Tarkovsky himself. These repetitions are at first confusing, yet inspire unique engagement, analysis and discussion by its viewers, its rhyming pieces juxtaposed alongside one another like a piece of music that finds new variations with which to play its same chords, continuing an ever evolving melody.
There’s simply nothing quite like Tarkovsky’s eye. It’s methodical, patient, meticulous, and astounding. Every shot has purpose, intention, and specified movement, so effortless yet so calculated. Peering through his immaculately crafted window, I felt as if experiencing the limitless possibilities of the medium once again for the first time, like opening my eyes to a vast dreamlike state beyond reality that I was reluctant to wake up from. In fact, much of the film’s sequences take on an oneiric aesthetic, embodying the unique quality of our memories of the past to inevitably acquire a slightly altered, heightened, or dreamlike state. Specific frames feel as if lifted from a dream and transplanted onto screen, intact and perfectly realized. Shots of a barn slowly burning or the wind rushing through the fields or the fading of an imprint on a table are permanently etched into my brain, sure to resurface during my sleep. Tarkovsky switches frequently from sumptuous color to black-and-white, and each is gorgeous in their contrast, depth, and composition of dark interiors and breathtaking exteriors as shot by cinematographer Georgi Rerberg. The speed of time is also altered by his hand, slowing to almost hypnotizing effect, and the editing sweeps us along in a journey across history both personal and universal.
Far from easily accessible or digestible, Tarkovsky’s fourth feature film is a testament to his mastery of the art form. His approach to visual storytelling has clearly helped shape the artistic voices of some of the world’s greatest contemporary filmmakers, including Malick, Lynch, and countless others. With ZERKALO, he has wrapped an exploration of the marriage between our personal histories and the environment around us in an awe-inspiring package, one that almost defies understanding if not description. As human beings, our lives span both an eternity and an instant, and our minds mold our memories into small evocative capsules of moments that embody who we were, who we are, the way our experiences change and the way they stay the same. It seems foolish to claim real comprehension of the film’s wealth and depth of meaning, particularly on just one viewing, but I feel this is part of what Tarkovsky was reaching for and truly grasped. It eludes and confounds us while still moving us with its beauty, and isn’t that reflective of our knowledge of the mysteries of life and time itself? That doesn’t hinder our pursuit for answers, but spurs us on as we try to attain the unattainable. Is ZERKALO an exercise in attempting to understand, to come to terms with the weight of life, death, and existence? A question for another time perhaps, and certainly repeated viewings.
(They Shoot Pictures is a series of posts dedicated to viewing films from the yearly updated 1,000 greatest films list “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?”, compiled from rankings by critics and filmmakers alike at theyshootpictures.com)