Andrei Tarkovsky's THE MIRROR (1974) is his most personal and artistically daring film--and to me, ultimately his most moving.
A semi-autobiographical work, it interweaves poems, dramatic scenes, dreams and newsreels to evoke the inner symbolic world of the protagonist, his nostalgia for the past and his troubled relationships with his wife and mother in the present. At the same time it is a meditation on the nature of Russia, from the nation's role as mediator between the East and West to specific historical events such as the Stalinist purges of the mid-to-late 1930s and World War II. Indeed, few works of art say more about the Russian people with such economy.
The cinematography, by Georgii Rerberg, is so richly detailed that it frequently takes your breath away. Many of the shots are deliberately reminiscent of paintings by Breughel and Leonardo da Vinci. The soundtrack is equally beautiful, layered with natural sounds, electronic music, classical music (by composers such as Bach and Pergolesi) and poems (written and recited by the director's father Arsenii Tarkovsky, a noted Russian poet).
The film undoubtedly benefits from its superb cast, which includes many popular and highly respected Russian actors. The voice of the Narrator is played by Innokenty Smoktunovsky; Margarita Terekhova plays both the Mother and the Wife. Other actors make indelible impressions in smaller roles: Anatoly Solonitsyn (the Doctor), Oleg Yankovsky (the Father), Alla Demidova and Nikolai Grinko (the mother's colleagues at the printing factory). For those who speak Russian, it's a pleasure just to hear their finely tuned dialogue.
Although the film was widely criticized for being too difficult to follow, it was also praised by many Russian critics for capturing the spirit of an entire generation. It may not be to the taste of everyone, since it is constructed more like a poem than a conventional film narrative. However, for those who are willing to make the leap of faith, it is uniquely rewarding.
Kino on Video's new DVD looks absolutely stunning. Having seen the film a number of times in various less-than-ideal incarnations on video, I was impressed at the way the DVD captures the richness of the film's cinemtography. The film is above all a sensuous experience, so every extra bit of detail in the image and sound helps add to its overall emotional impact. Kino has used the same transfer for their new VHS edition, but the DVD is clearly preferable and it's the same price. It doesn't have any special features, unlike Kino's new release of Tarkovky's THE SACRIFICE, which includes a making-of documentary. However, it's hard to complain when the film itself and the video transfer are so satisfying. In summation, I can hardly recommend this particular title more highly.
Be sure to read Vlad's review of the shoddy quality of this DVD. As a non-Russian speaker, I am essentially spared the awful knowledge of just what has been done to this film.
At first viewing, unless you are an incredibly perspicacious viewer, this movie will be utterly baffling, partly because Tarkovsky has gone to such lengths to blur past and present. The same actress plays the protagonist's ex-wife in the present and mother in the past and the same actor plays the protagonist's son in the present and himself in the past. Sometimes the present is in color, the past in black & white; having established this expectation, Tarkovsky then reverses it on you later. Yet other times, dreams are in color and reality is in that tantalizing shade of sepia-color-black & white that Tarkovsky has used elsewhere (especially in "Stalker").
In fact, I was so baffled when I first saw the film that I simply gave up trying to follow the narrative and basked in the intense beauty of the film work. The dream sequence of the mother washing her hair, for instance, is utterly mesmerizing. The long shot that carries us from a table out to witness a burning building is breathtaking in all of the various reflections and reversals of angles it uses along the way. The final shot of an old women and two children walking into a field as the camera pulls slowly into deeper and deeper woods until finally the people are completely concealed by the trees often chokes me up, and I couldn't tell you why. Even the opening scene, simply a conversation on a fence by a field, is an exquisitely choreographed ballet of cinematography.
This most personal of Tarkovsky's intensely personal body of work is essentially biographical, but no self-respecting member of the Russian intelligentsia, at least not one of Tarkovsky's disposition, could ever justify such a self-indulgence as mere biography. Consequently, we never see the protagonist, save for his hand when he is ill and overhearing his voice. This erasure of his adult self, and the inclusion of newsreel footage of key historical moments during the protagonist's life, aim at creating a generalized biography for all of Russia. An especially striking moment shows news footage of Russian soldiers slogging muddily through a bog. As soon as one has the full impression that this is human life in a thoroughly degraded condition, a voiceover of one of Tarkovsky's father's poems talks of immortality, sublime beauty, the very loftiest of human sentiments on spirituality. The contrast is deliberate, but not ironic, and illustrates a triumph of the human spirit in even the most unlikely of places and times. Elsewhere, Tarkovsky makes a religion of elevating the mundane. In his book on his work, he admits that one of his techniques (he denies there is anything symbolic in his work) is to focus on an object for so long that the viewer inevitably begins to wonder at, and thereby increase the significance of it.
Perhaps if the subtitles were better, I'd better understand the film. As it is, the sheer intensity of the films gorgeousness never ceases to amaze me. The dream sequences alone are simply amazing. There have been other movies that might here or there exceed the Mirror in beauty for a moment or two ("Picnic at Hanging Rock" comes to mind), but I've never found one that can even come close to matching its consistency throughout. This is without question, the most visually moving film I have ever seen.