Andrei Tarkovsky | Mirror

“when i sleep, i know no fear, no, trouble no bliss. blessing on him who invented sleep. the common coin that purchases all things, the balance that levels shepherd and king, fool and wise man. there is only one bad thing about sound sleep. they say it closely resembles death.”

Mirror  is a 1975 art film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Mirror is Andrei Tarkovsky’s beloved project, one he (seems to have) wanted to make for a long time (it remained his favourite movie, and closest to his concept of cinema). It is loosely autobiographical, and combines many elements, from poetry read in voiceover, to dream sequences, flashbacks, newsreel and mnemonics (memory devices). The movie is a poetic exploration of childhood: the long dolly shots around the old house in the country and the Moscow apartment explore the spaces of childhood, the geography of memory: the table was there, the chair was here, the window was there, and so on. A movie of acutely remembered places. Film as personal psychogeography, self-reflexive, even indulgent. Source

The movie is a subtly ravishing passage through the halls of time and memory and is as much a poem composed in images, or a hypnagogic hallucination, as it is a work of cinema. In a richly textured collage of varying film stocks and newsreel footage, the recollections of a dying poet flash before our eyes, his dreams mingling with scenes of childhood, wartime, and marriage, all imbued with the mystical power of a trance. Largely dismissed by Soviet critics on its release because of its elusive narrative structure, Mirror has since taken its place as one of the director’s most renowned and influential works, a stunning personal statement from an artist transmitting his innermost thoughts and feelings directly from psyche to screen. Source

Over the course of his brilliant career, Andrei Tarkovsky has grappled with questions concerning time and existence. In Mirror, these philosophical investigations reach their blinding apotheosis. Probably one of the least accessible works by Tarkovsky, Mirror is a film that needs to be watched over and over again until it conquers your dreams. Source

In interviews and his journal, Tarkovsky expressed his frustrations about viewers who complained that the film was “difficult”. There is a famous anecdote where the filmmaker recalls one particularly heated debate after a screening of Mirror. Intellectuals were busy dissecting the dense themes and the complex narrative techniques, unable to reach a consensus on the film’s meaning. The cleaning woman who was tasked with kicking them out of the screening room grew impatient with their digressions. Since she had watched the film earlier, she gave her opinion in order to stop the endless discussion: “Everything is quite simple, someone fell ill and was afraid of dying. He remembered, all of a sudden, all the pain he’d inflicted on others, and he wanted to atone for it, to ask to be pardoned.” Tarkovsky was stunned that she had grasped the central theme of his masterpiece, despite the repeated failures of critics and academics. To him, it was undeniable proof that his art had the power to connect with people and mirror their own sufferings.Source

“There are no entertaining moments in the movie. In fact I am categorically against entertainment in cinema: it is as degrading for the author as it is for the audience.”

Andrei Tarkovsky

Structured in the form of a fascinating, non-linear dream, Mirror is the story of Alexei – a dying man who explores the crevices of his troubled mind in his final moments. (…) In accordance with the oneiric theory of cinema that believes films are similar to dreams, Tarkovsky presents us with recollections of a rural childhood that was spent in the absence of a father who had been drafted into the military. The filmmaker’s own father, famous Soviet poet Arseny Tarkovsky, embodies this essence as the distanced narrator who reads portions of his own poems and remains absorbed in his own work. Source

The fading protagonist was primarily raised by his mother (played by Margarita Terekhova), the main figure who connects Alexei’s unreal past to the grim reality of his present. Stuck in a Freudian loop, he thinks of a younger version of his mother with the face of his wife (also played by the same actress). The actor who plays his adolescent son Ignat is the same one who plays a younger Alexei, a brilliant allusion to the fallacy of memory and the subversion of an absolute truth. Tarkovsky’s dialectics are truly unique: oscillating from colour to black-and-white, from fiction to documentary footage, from dreams to memory.Source

Even though Tarkovsky has insisted that Mirror is neither surreal (he hated surrealism) nor an outright example of symbolism, audiences have always believed that the spectacular imagery of the film exists on registers of reality that are different from the ones we are used to. Some of Mirror’s iconic shots have been immortalised in film history, like the silent anguish of the burning house or the mystical act of levitation conducted by Alexei’s mother. Source

Alexei’s world, or at least the one he lets us observe, is purely solipsistic. He cannot get out of his own head, struggling with childhood fears and unwanted memories of war. Despite it all, he wants to return to those days because it would give him a chance to redo everything. The desperate hope of a living corpse: “I can’t wait to see this dream in which I’ll be a child again and feel happy again because everything will be ahead, everything will be possible.”Source

It is tragic that the possibilities he envisions are impossible, unable to reverse the cosmic tyranny of entropy. Like Tarkovsky (the invisible filmmaker), Alexei is also largely missing from his own world. Due to his mysterious illness, he is restricted to a room full of mirrors but none of them can present his reflection. This is the central conflict of the film: can cinema mirror reality? In Mirror’s case, it definitely can and it does so in a subjective manner – offering varying revelations to different people like a beautiful Rorschach test.Source


The concept of Mirror dates as far back as 1964, when Tarkovsky wrote down his idea for a film about the dreams and memories of a man, though without the man appearing on screen as he would in a conventional film. The first episodes of Mirror were written while Tarkovsky was working on Andrei Rublev. These episodes were published as a short story under the title A White Day in 1970. The title was taken from a 1942 poem by his father. In 1968, after having finished Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky went to the cinematographer’s resort in Repino intending to write the script for The Mirror together with Aleksandr Misharin. This script was titled Confession and was proposed to the film committee at Goskino. Although it contained popular themes – for example, a heroic mother, the war, and patriotism – the proposal was turned down. The main reason was most likely the complex and unconventional nature of the script. Moreover, Tarkovsky and Misharin clearly stated that they did not know what the final form of the film would be – this was to be determined in the process of filming. Source

With the script being turned down by the film committee, Tarkovsky went on to make the film Solaris. But his diary entries show that he was still eager to make the film. Finally, the script was approved by the new head of Goskino, Filipp Ermash in the summer of 1973. Several versions of the script for Mirror exist, as Tarkovsky constantly rewrote parts of the script, with the latest variant of the script written in 1974 while he was in Italy. Source

The completed film was initially rejected by Filipp Ermash, the head of Goskino in July 1974. One reason given was that the film is incomprehensible. Tarkovsky was infuriated about this rejection and even toyed with the idea of going abroad and making a film outside the Soviet Union. Mirror was ultimately approved by Goskino without any changes in fall 1974.Source


When Mosfilm critics were asked in November 1974 to evaluate Mirror, responses were divided. Some viewed it as a major work that would be better understood upon the analysis of future generations; others dismissed it as an unfocused failure and believed that even more cultured viewers would find its story opaque. This resulted in a very limited distribution. Many audience members walked out of theatrical screenings, but those who approved of the work were ardent in their praise. Source

Mirror is now frequently listed among the greatest films of all time. Director Michael Haneke voted for Mirror in the 2002 Sight & Sound directors’ poll (where the film ranked at number 16) and later said that he has seen the picture at least 25 times. In 2002 Critics poll it ranked at number 35. In 2018 the film ranked at number 20 on the BBC’s list of the 100 greatest foreign-language films, as voted on by 209 film critics from 43 countries.Source

“I believe if one tells the truth, some kind of inner truth, one will always be understood”

Andrei Tarkovsky

Mirror is the closest thing in cinema to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Rimbaud or C.P. Cavafy, those masters of the poetry of nostalgia. Like the poems of Rilke, Cavafy and Rimbaud, The Mirror is a dense mesh of constellations of images and memories, a veritable mnemonic banquet. It is a movie of fierce self-reflexive intensity – something like Rimbaud in his poem of childhood ‘Les poètes de sept ans’. Among the thousands of mainstream (Hollywood) movies that try to depict children and childhood, very few come close to the luminous authenticity of The Mirror. Yet The Mirror never slips into easy sentimentality (although it does come close once or twice). It never becomes complacent or banal. It is marvellously self-reflexive, yet avoids all the traps of inwardly-looking art. Though unashamedly introspective, The Mirror virtually achieves a universal transcendence. Source


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