By the time he made Mirror (Zerkalo), the fourth of his seven features and the second-to-last to be made in the Soviet Union, director Andrei Tarkovsky was accustomed to controversy and contention. Although his directorial debut, Ivan's Childhood (1962), was praised by both Soviet and international critics as a compelling, expressionistic portrait of the horrors of war through a child's eyes, his second film, Andrei Rublev (1966), an unconventional portrait of the legendary 15th-century Russian icon painter, ran into trouble with Goskino, the USSR State Committee for Cinematography, which battled with Tarkovsky over numerous cuts of the film and attempted to suppress its distribution. He had less trouble with his science fiction masterpiece Solaris (1972), an adaptation of Stainslaw Lem's novel, but it was still criticized by Soviet critics for being too cerebral and philosophical.
An even more hostile reception awaited Mirror, which is both Tarkovsky's most explicitly autobiographical film and also his most unconventional. While his previous works often violated the norms of traditional, mainstream cinema, they nevertheless exist firmly in relation to a recognizable genre and follow some basic conventions of storytelling. Mirror, on the other hand, is largely unmoored from the constraints of narrative and convention, free-flowing like poetry in a series of loosely related vignettes that represent the fleeting memories of a dying man interwoven with crucial moments in Soviet history. The fact that memory and fantasy are often intertwined and there is no way of discerning one from the other is central to the film's effectiveness; Tarkovsky doesn't ask us to understand the film so much as he wants us to experience it, to feel it. We might make some connections, we might not, but the film's power still stands in the evocative nature of its imagery and the compelling manner in which Tarkovsky abandons any pretenses of convention, a daring move for a Soviet director who had already spent the majority of his professional career in conflict with government authorities who barely tolerated him because his films were well-received at international film festivals.
Much of the film is built around fragmented memories based on Tarkovsky's own childhood experiences, some of which, as he wrote in his book Sculpting in Time, "made a deep impression on [him] as a child, [and] continued to torment [him]." These memories include the war-time evacuation of Moscow and his training in school by a military instructor; much of the story takes place in and around Tarkovsky's grandfather's rural home, a wooden structure that was reconstructed based on family photographs. Tarkovsky's on-screen surrogate is a boy named Aleksei, who we see primarily as a 5-year-old (Filipp Yankovskiy) in the mid-1930s and a 12-year-old (Ignat Daniltsev) during World War II (he also appears mostly off-screen as an adult).
Central to Aleksei's memories is the figure of his mother, Natalya (Margarita Terekhova), who is as much a central character as anyone. There are sequences involving Natalya that can't be explained as memory, given that they involve aspects of her life of which her son was not a part (including an extended sequence involving her work as a proof-reader for a printer and her fear that she has made a grievous mistake that must be corrected). The largely absent father (Oleg Yankovskiy) is also central, and familial discord and fracturing is reflected in both the splintered nature of the film's narrative and the replay of Aleksei's childhood through his adulthood and broken relationship with his wife (also, not incidentally, played by Terekhova). Although the film was scripted by Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Misharin, the film was a fluid work throughout production that took shape during the filming. As Tarkovsky wrote, "we made it a deliberate point of principle not to have the picture worked out and arranged in advance, before the material had been filmed. It was important to see how, under what conditions, the film could take shape as it were by itself."
Such an approach is obviously fraught with danger, but it suits Tarkovsky's ambitions in Mirror. Fundamentally enigmatic and opaque, it engages us as on an almost subconscious level with its beautiful, evocative imagery and rejection of chronological flow or obvious narrative connections. Its form is that of a dream, a beautifully modulated evocation of the mind at work in its final moments, blurring together the real and the fantastical, memories and vision, held together not with the strains of logic, but rather with the deepest wells of associative emotion. If Mirror leaves an impression on you, it is likely because of its singularity of vision, the way in which it brings to the fore the uniqueness of each moment in our lives, even if those moments feel isolated and disconnected. Every moment is a world in itself.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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