Obituary. Andrei Tarkovsky
Born 4 April 1932, died 29 December 1986
[Publicado en The Independent, 30 de diciembre de 1986]

The death of Andrei Tarkovsky in Paris yesterday at the age of 54 is not less a blow for being expected. It was widely known in the film world that he had been struggling with cancer since November 1985. This struggle had been brave and painful. As recently as August it was hoped that a cure had been effected.

By one of those fateful ironies that seem to go hand in hand with such news, the protagonist of Tarkovsky's new film The Sacrifice, opening in the west End in a week's time, is a man who is obsessed with the "sickening physical fear of extinction." So too, the hero of a previous film, Nostalghia (1983), struggles with painful intimations of mortality. Both these films were conceived when Tarkovsky was at the peak of his powers and might have been supposed to have many years left as a working artist. He appears, grimly, to have written his own obituary without knowing it.

The fear of death which is the main subject of these later films, however, went along with an increasingly explicit religious faith. A poem of his father's quoted in the autobiographical film The Mirror (1974) takes the opposite, religious stance:

On earth there is no death.
All are immortal. All is
Immortal. No need
To be afraid of death at 17
Nor yet at 70. Reality and light
Exist, but neither death nor darkness

Which of the two positions was Tarkovsky's in his last days? Perhaps, paradoxically, both of them. As a film-maker and as an artist he belonged to the Dostoevskian tradition of serious emotional meditation on the meaning of life. His films have a spiritual intensity and depth on this subject that we normally find only in literature or music.

Tarkovsky was born in the Ivavno region near Moscow in 1932, the son of a poet, Arseniy (still living), and an intelligent, cultivated mother who worked as a proof reader in the State printing house. Although the parents divorced when Tarkovsky was a child he continued to love and revere both of them. In fact, the private love of parents for children and vice versa (outside any possible ideological interference from the state) is one of the key humanist themes of his work. His mother makes a short, moving appearance as an elderly lady in The Mirror.

Tarkovsky seems to have drifted into film studies by accident. At school he had studied music and painting, and his first ambition was to be a composer. An aborted study of Arabic was interrupted in his early twenties to go east on a scientific expedition to Siberia. On his return a year later, and casting round for an occupation, he enrolled in the State film school (VGIK) which just at that moment, under the directorship of Mikhail Romm, was going through a period of renewal (1954). The apprenticeship was thorough and excellent, and Tarkovsky's first film, Ivan's Childhood, a dense and poetic war drama, surprised no one by jointly winning the Golden Lion award when it was exhibited in Venice in 1962.

Six films were to follow this over a period of 25 years. Perhaps the best known of these in the West is the marvelous medieval epic Andrei Roublev. Scenes from the life of the holy 15th century icon painter were here set against the background of the vast violent conflict that had been raging for 200 years between the Russians and the Tartars. Audiences who have seen the film will remember its climax, the casting of an enormous bell on the wild hillside outside Vladimir. Never before, it seems, had an imagery emanating out of the Soviet Union harboured so explicit a nostalgia for the Christian culture that had been officially eradicated.

This film was the beginning of Tarkovsky's troubles with the authorities. It was held back from exhibition for five years, surfacing briefly at the Cannes Film festival in 1969, but among the unofficial entries. Meanwhile, however, by one of those quirks that make Soviet culture more complicated than it at first appears, he had been allowed to continue filming, even encouraged.

Solaris (1971) is a terrific work of science fiction adapted from a novel by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem . Although the scenes in space are as technically elegant as Stanley Kubrick's (in the near contemporary 2001: A Space Odyssey) it is in fact the scenes on earth, set in the beautiful, ancestral grounds of a dacha, which move the director, and give rise to the film's most plangent emotional passages. The film has a grave, tender thoughtfulness, contrasting forcibly with Kubrick's bright pyrotechnics.

The four films that followed became gradually more private. In The Mirror there is still an attempt, via the use of carefully-selected newsreel footage, to link the private world of family to the wider historical context of Stalinist Russia. But in the remaining films, Stalker (1979), Nostalghia (1983) and most recently The Sacrifice, everything is pared down to a Bergmanian austerity. In place of the huge historical fresco, there is chamber work. Long shot gives way to close-up; a cast of thousands becomes a mere handful. Increasingly, the subject matter too works its way towards one obsessional, all-embracing theme: the necessity of faith in the face of its simultaneous "impossibility".

It is this perhaps that is Tarkovsky's great contribution to cinema. He taught us ¯perhaps it would be better to say reminded us anew¯ that a film doesn't have to have a plot and two recognizable stars, doesn't have to flirt with sex and violence, to keep an audience's serious attention. There are inner states of being, closer to poetry, that film is capable of exploring. How strange, it might be thought, that it is from the Soviet Union, with its notorious repression of artists, that this lesson should come. Yet maybe not so strange after all. Tarkovsky left Russia only reluctantly, in July 1984, after much heart-searching, and was never reconciled to his self-imposed exile. The great traditions of spiritual culture had never died out in his homeland. Tragically, at this very moment when at last it seems as if the screws are becoming untightened, he is no longer around to benefit from it. If only he had lived. What films mightn't he have made on returning to Russia?

Mark Le Fanu

©Del texto original, 1986: The Independent (Londres, UK)

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