The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion Review
While I greatly admire the works of Tarkovsky, and would even go as far as to say he is the single greatest filmmaker I have ever seen and the only director I can think of who made nothing but all-out masterpieces, I don’t envy any writer or reviewer trying to get to grips with the deeply personal themes, the lyricism and spiritual content that are contained in those seven remarkable films. Identifying those common elements, motifs and splendid visual stylisations that suffuse Tarkovsky’s entire, relatively short catalogue of films – whether they be science-fiction, war movie, historical drama or personal reveries - is not difficult, nor is it too much of a struggle to recognise in them the hand of a genius. Putting the meaning of those films into words, or even accurately expressing just what kind of impact they achieve however is surely impossible.
Hence, some of the best studies of Tarkovsky are those that do not exist in the written medium, but are instead those who explore the Russian master’s work through their own films. Three of those films are collected here by Artificial Eye as The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion. What is immediately apparent from the list of the filmmakers involved is that they are not just regular film or documentary filmmakers, but artists with a particular lyrical sensibility similar to that of Tarkovsky – Alexander Sokurov, the Russian director of wistful elegies and romantic lyricism in films like Russian Ark and Father and Son; Chris Marker, the French academic, documentarian and experimental filmmaker of La Jetée and Sans Soleil; and Tonino Guerra, the screenwriter whose elliptical and poetic narrative approach characterises the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and Theo Angelopoulos.
Moscow Elegy (Alexander Sokurov, 1987)
Unable to get approval to make films in his home country, Tarkovsky left Russia in 1982, initially to make a film in Italy, Nostalghia, but the exile would become a permanent one, the director going on to make The Sacrifice in Gotland, Sweden and dying shortly after its completion in 1988. It’s the years of exile that are the subject of Alexander Sokurov’s sombre and meditative documentary on the Russian filmmaker.
Moscow Elegy makes extensive use of footage from Tarkovsky and Guerra’s documentary Tempo di Viaggio - desaturated of all colour - as well as extensive footage from key scenes in Tarkovsky’s final two films. Sokurov balances these images of the man in exile with the young man who appeared in Marlen Khutsiev’s 1963 film Ilyich Gates and makes use of still photographs and visits to the Moscow locations where Tarkovsky grew up and lived with his family.
Since much of the footage is taken from other sources, the emotions that they engender are similarly borrowed and taken out of context – though evidently Nostalghia is directly relevant to the subject of exile - but Sokurov nonetheless manages to fashion them into something else that perhaps touches on a deeper truth. Adding music and a narration, Sokurov tries to understand how the years of exile must have felt, and searches through the work and examines the bearing of the director himself, to assess and convey the impact of Tarkovsky’s exile from Russia. Moscow Elegy tries to assess what the separation from one’s family and homeland means to an artist of Tarkovsky’s nature and sensibility, how he has to adapt to new cultures and new ways of thinking, as well as show how he manages to cross that divide through his latter films.
A Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch (Chris Marker, 1988)
Chris Marker takes a much more analytical overview on the entire Tarkovsky oeuvre as a whole in his 1988 cinematic essay for the French television series Cinéma de Notre Temps. Made around the time of Tarkovsky’s death, it shows the director working on his final film, The Sacrifice and footage of him in his hospital bed, reunited with members of his family who have been allowed to leave Russia to be with him. Marker’s analysis of Tarkovsky’s work is brief but pertinent, using clips from all his films and noting common themes and techniques – the use of the elements in all his films, the significance of shooting angles and how they often incorporate art and painting.
Fascinating though the observations are, Marker’s deconstruction of scenes in Tarkovsky films isn’t particularly illuminating. Does, for example, knowledge of the fact that the final famous elaborate tracking scene of The Sacrifice captures all the elements of earth, air, fire and water into a single shot make it any more of a stunning achievement or strengthen its impact? Does the fact that the first scene in Tarkovsky’s first film Ivan’s Childhood corresponds with the last shot in his film The Sacrifice really tell us anything meaningful about the director? Perhaps not, but characteristically sensitive to such rhythms and the power of lyrical imagery, Marker touches on the infinitely epic, mystical and ethereal qualities that suffuse Tarkovsky’s work.
Tempo di Viaggio (Tonino Guerra, 1983)
Tempo di Viaggio (Travelling Time) is perhaps the most intriguing and illuminating of the three films included here, particularly as it was made by Andrei Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra themselves as they set about the preparation for the making of the director’s Italian film, Nostalghia.
It’s Tonino Guerra who is in the driving seat for the journey, taking his Russian guest around baroque Italian towns, mostly along the Amalfi coast, scouting for locations and inspiration for the tone and content of the movie. Tarkovsky complains that he feels like a tourist visiting guide-book attractions in foreign places that don’t speak to him and doesn’t feel he is gaining a true understanding of the people who live there, or the culture behind them. The journey however also serves to bring the two men together onto a similar or at least complementary wavelength in a way that would create one of Tarkovsky’s most difficult but rewarding films.
What is most fascinating about the documentary is how it offers the viewer a unique opportunity to see Tarkovsky off the film set, in regular surroundings, talking in a relaxed manner about himself and his thoughts on life and filmmaking. Although there are interview-like questions put to him by Guerra, the easy-going manner in which the two men are wandering around the Italian writer’s house and the ambience the location provides gives Tarkovsky the opportunity to answer them at his leisure and with openness. Hence we find out about the director’s influences, the filmmakers he admires, his thoughts on the role of a filmmaker and the projects he was never able to make. As Sokurov picks up in his documentary Moscow Elegy, there is as much revealed in the manner in which this is filmed as in what Tarkovsky actually says.
The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The 2-disc set is presented on single-layer discs in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
All three films date from the 1980s and were either made for television or make extensive use of footage that was shot on video or low resolution film media, so the quality is not of a high standard on any of them and, not unexpectedly, the aspect ratio for each is 1.33:1 or 4:3. Documentary footage is often grainy and rough, there are marks and scratches evident and colours look dull and faded. Excerpts from Tarkovsky’s films used in the documentaries however are letterboxed when widescreen and of reasonably quality. The actual video quality is not a major consideration, so this is more than adequate, and could hardly be expected to be much better than it is here.
The same can be said for the audio tracks which are relatively low-quality and presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. They are however as audible and clear as they need to be.
English subtitles are fixed on Moscow Elegy. A Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch is narrated in English, but the documentary and film footage contains fixed English subtitles. Tempo di Viaggio has optional English subtitles, apparently improved from the documentary's previous appearance on the UK Nostalghia DVD.
The only extra features on the discs are brief Filmographies for Alexander Sokurov, Chris Marker, Tonino Guerra and Andrei Tarkovsky.
As examinations of the work of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, the three relatively brief documentary features that make up The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion can inevitably only scratch at the surface of a complex individual, both as a person and as an artist. Each film however approaches the subject from a unique and personal angle – from Sokurov’s meditation on the exile of an artist, through to Marker’s analytical overview of his work, and the insightful and rare glimpse of the man himself offered in the conversations between Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra – that offers fascinating insights into the workings of the filmmakers themselves as much as their subject. With one of these features already available on the Artificial Eye release of Nostalghia (Tempo di Viaggio), this set could have been an opportunity for the distributor to gather rare Tarkovsky pieces not yet available - The Killers, The Steamroller and the Violin - and complete their collection of the director’s work, but the opportunity has been missed.