Much has been said and written about Andrei Tarkovsky’s highly autobiographical Mirror since it was first released over forty years ago. Yet its imagery and mysticism have by no means lost their power to astound. Tarkovsky possessed a sensibility for, and mastery over, the cinematic form that few directors – before or after – have been able to match; a mastery evident in almost every sublime frame of Mirror. From the rustic rural home he grew up in to the unforgiving, Brueghel-like snowy landscape of his military training, and the luxurious apartment he inhabits in the film’s present, Tarkovsky depicts the places and events of his life with a sense of rapture coloured by a bittersweet affection for his Russian homeland.
Although the above describes Mirror‘s world as that of Tarkovsky, in fact it depicts scenes from the life of a fictional poet known only as Alexei (portrayed in childhood and adolescence by Filipp Yankovskiy and Ignat Daniltsev). Yet it is also no secret that Mirror is a deeply personal exploration of Tarkovsky’s own upbringing, his close relationships and the rapidly changing world around him, roughly divisible into three time periods: childhood (1930s), adolescence (40s) and adulthood (60s). Beyond this rudimentary structure however, there is almost nothing of what one would conventionally call a narrative. Characters, symbols, events, voiceovers and temporal leaps juxtapose and succeed each other seemingly without logic, the idea being that memory and a person’s spiritual journey are best understood poetically, rather than analytically.
Mirror’s stunning aesthetic universe certainly makes a good case for such an approach to autobiography, with certain visual and auditory motifs lingering long in the mind. These moments – such as a barn gloriously ablaze, Alexei’s mother Maria (Margarita Terekhova) floating transcendentally above her bed, and a vanishing fingerprint left by a ghostly apparition – are presented in a dreamlike manner that makes them feel at once surreal and yet more real than reality itself. However, it should also be noted that the highly personal way in which Mirror tells its story, while undeniably authentic, makes it, at times, a frustratingly impenetrable work.
With so little explanation and characterisation behind the individuals and events that make up Alexei’s life, it is all too easy while viewing Mirror to feel bewildered about their ultimate meaning within it. In one such scene, a man raves passionately in (unsubtitled) Spanish about bullfighting, while in another printing press employee Maria panics excessively about a mistake she may have overlooked. One often has the sense that this is a work of art made purely for the artist’s self-enlightenment, a noble but unavoidably exclusionary undertaking. With all due respect to the kind of film Mirror is, a little more context would have enhanced – rather than diminished – the intellectual and emotional potency of its exquisite visual-symbolic language.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka