The Mirror Review

After the relatively conventional, narrative-driven likes of Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Rublev and Solaris, AndreiTarkovsky's work underwent a sharp conversion, turning inwardly on itself to create four uniquely beautiful but often frustratingly impenetrable films where endlessly complex and intricate layers of images and sounds combine to create a whole encyclopaedia of subtle, allusive meanings to which the story very much plays second fiddle.

The Mirror was the first of these, and remains the most 'difficult', largely because Tarkovsky made it so deeply personal - essentially, it's his autobiography. But this isn't 'autobiography' in the sense of "I was born in 1932 and grew up in Moscow" - it's a series of scenes and impressions, often going right back to early childhood, where we remember things without really grasping their meaning.

And that's very much what it's like encountering The Mirror for the first time, without any knowledge of Tarkovsky's life or mid-twentieth-century Russian history, which pretty much describes the conditions under which I first saw it in the early 1980s (though it's worth noting that for all its apparent impenetrability, this generated more ardent fan mail from ordinary Russians than any of Tarkovsky's other films).

Despite having only the vaguest clue what it was about, though, I kept watching, because Tarkovsky's control of his material is so compelling that I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. An early sequence, with the children calmly watching their neighbour's house burn to the ground, captures all the fascination they must have felt at the sight, along with some almost tactile sensations - not just the fire, but the water dripping off the roof of the shed from which they stand and stare. Almost every scene is given a similar iconic moment, with the seemingly banal - a reflection in an oil lamp, breath fading from the surface of a table, the wind rustling through bushes and cornfields, burning embers, flowing water - being filmed in such a way as though we'd never seen it before.

And this is the crucial point about The Mirror - as Tarkovsky himself says on the soundtrack, "words cannot express a person's emotions". So on a first viewing, it should really be experienced: explanations come later, and there are plenty on offer (most notably in Tarkovsky's own book Sculpting in Time), after which one returns to the film again and it becomes ever more richer. It's been compared to a Cubist painting, and it's easy to see why: its subject is illuminated from a whole range of angles, many applied simultaneously, with the result that it often seems like a radically different film on each encounter (Tarkovsky apparently re-edited the material some twenty times before he felt he'd got the balance right).

Ironically enough, given the film's subject, Tarkovsky himself hardly registers on the screen - much of the focus is on his mother, played initially by Margareta Terekhova and, later on, by his real mother (Tarkovsky grew up in a single-parent family after his father, the poet Arseniy Tarkovsky, walked out on them - his poems regularly recur on the soundtrack like a half-buried memory, and when he appears as a character, he's usually just offscreen, lurking in the shadows).

The outside world is only barely touched upon - Stalin's Terror of the late 1930s becomes an interlude where his panic-stricken mother is convinced her inept proofreading has caused an inadvertently obscene mistake in an official volume, the Spanish Civil War is alluded to via the brief presence of Spanish refugees in the family apartment, while World War II becomes a sequence between a lonely, embittered orphan and his teacher that flares up into a suspenseful confrontation over a grenade.

These episodes are enhanced by the striking use of newsreel footage of episodes from the Spanish Civil War and of Soviet troops during World War II, whose function is partly to give us a guide as to the period being described somewhat elliptically in the main narrative, but also to make a point about the filming of 'history': even when the subject is faithfully recorded, the mere act of selection (of the shot in the first place and of this particular footage subsequently) makes this material into just as much a work of art as Tarkovsky's own images.

But just as much attention is paid to the characters' inner lives, as outwardly realistic scenes segue into what can only be dreams - the mother wanders through the house after washing her hair, as water pours from the ceiling over her (like most Tarkovsky films, The Mirror is saturated in water, fog and moisture in general), while later her body levitates as she sleeps.

There's no chance someone with my background will ever get to fully grasp The Mirror - I'd have to be Russian and at least three decades older for it to speak to me the way it spoke to Tarkovsky's contemporaries - but even I can appreciate that it's one of the most hauntingly beautiful films I've ever seen, as well as one of that tiny handful of works that genuinely pushes the medium into new and previously undiscovered territory.

This is the fourth Tarkovsky DVD I've seen to date (the others being Andrei Rublev, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice), and it's head and shoulders above the rest - in fact, it's the first Tarkovsky transfer I've seen that makes a strong case in favour of watching the film on DVD as opposed to 35mm.

As ever, Tarkovsky mixes and matches colour, tinted monochrome and black-and-white with film stocks of various grains and definitions, but this disc takes them in its stride, with a lovely sharp transfer framed at the correct 4:3 aspect ratio that has hardly any artefacts to speak of (it's a vast improvement on Kino's The Sacrifice, though this may be due to the disc only containing 106 minutes of footage as opposed to the latter's four hours plus!).

But what really stood out for me were the colours - they were far richer than I recalled from rather faded cinema prints, to the point when it sometimes felt as though I was watching The Mirror for the first time all over again. The print has suffered some minor damage - mostly spots and the occasional scratch, with the newsreel footage in predictably worse shape - but this is unquestionably the best version of the film I've seen to date.

There's not a lot to say about the sound - it's the original mono, and as far as I could hear it's an entirely accurate reproduction of Tarkovsky's complex soundscapes, blending natural sounds and classical music in a way that's as carefully pre-composed as the images. The orange-yellow subtitles are compulsory, but relatively small and discreet. There are fourteen chapter stops, which seem to cover all the major events in the film (the slow overall pace makes the number less restrictive than it might otherwise seem).

And, as with virtually every other Kino disc I've come across (The Sacrifice, ironically enough, being the major exception!), there are no extras whatsoever - which is very disappointing given that this film above all badly needs the kind of context-setting that Criterion's version of Andrei Rublev supplied. But at least I can't fault the presentation of the main feature, and that's a nice change when it comes to this particular director.

[It should be noted that an alternative version is due out shortly on the Ruscico label, and may well be a strong competitor - on the basis of their other Tarkovsky discs, the transfer should be excellent, and there should be quite a few extras as well. So unless you're desperate to see The Mirror now, I'd advise waiting at least until full specs of the new disc are available.]

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 20:18:30

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