The sense of ‘home’ was of great importance to the great director Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly in the latter part of his career when he was an exile from Russia. These two documentaries paint a fascinating portrait of a man and his art.
The first, the 63-minute Voyage in Time (aka Travelling Time and Tempo di viaggio) was co-directed by Tarkovsky himself and was filmed in 1983 when he was spending a month scouting for locations for his penultimate film Nostalghia.
We encounter the director sporting double denim and jet black hair, visiting the Italian home of Tonino Guerra; Guerra was a regular screenwriter for Antonioni and has developed the script for Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. It starts with a poem, recited by Guerra surrounded by a clutter of books, furniture and ornaments. The poem is about a house, likening it to an umbrella, or a coat, or a cage. A place that can offer shelter, comfort or entrapment. Tarkovsky remarks on the poem’s sadness.
The two men reflect on their journey through Italy, a search for a location. Guerra first took Tarkovsky to overpopulated tourist sites; Tarkovsky was looking for something more remote and secluded, more personal. We see footage of them visiting various villas and churches, and eventually a wearied Tarkovsky explains the first four days had dragged and that he felt he was wasting time. Guerra admits he was keen for Tarkovsky to experience some of Tuscany’s highlights, so he might understand the Nostalghia‘s main character’s enthusiasm for Italian architecture, and also perhaps to understand a little of the country’s culture, the everyday. Guerra speaks with obvious pride for his culture and heritage, something that Tarkovsky himself has had to leave behind.
There’s a long conversation on a sunlit terrace where Guerra is trying to get access to see a beautiful floor painted with rose petals as if gently strewn cover the white-tiled floor, but the villa’s owner is absent. We see a strangely-extended discussion where Guerra’s national pride is humiliated, he feels that Tarkovsky doesn’t even believe the floor even exists, as if this elusive work of art is a myth.
When they eventually discover the location of Bagno Vignoni, Tarkovsky immediately responds to its poetic mood and selects it as a primary location for Nostalghia. He recalls that he experienced its qualities when he had to rest in one of the hotel’s rooms for an hour; the small room had a small window without a view and the light had a curious darkened quality. It felt perfect for the film. He was also captivated by the courtyard swimming pool with the early morning mist rising from the its surface, evoking a mystery and sadness. The location is almost a character of its own in Nostalgia and gives that film a strange ethereal atmosphere.
In the documentary, Tarkovsky also discusses his thoughts on cinema in response to questions in letters sent by film students. He considers the qualities of film directors he admires: Dovzhenko and particularly Earth as wonder of silent cinema, Bresson for his ascetic qualities, Antonioni for teaching him that nothing needs to happen in a scene, Fellini for his love of humanity, and Bergman for his emotional truths. It’s interesting hearing of the influences of a man whose cinema is so wholly unique.
Filmed by Luciano Tovoli (Argento’s Suspiria, Tenebrae and Julie Taymor’s Titus), the majority of the film is composed with journalistic hand-held footage both in Guerra’s apartment and at various sites. However, the camera occasionally lingers on images, capturing a more poetic element and finding a contemplative beauty in simple scenes, much as in Tarkovsky’s own features. It gazes at the Bagno Vignoni mists, and on the face of an icon in an Italian church. There’s a beautiful moment when the camera follows a young girl wandering nearby, her footsteps on paving slabs the only audible element.
Most poignantly it illustrates Tarkovsky’s own yearning for his home. He reflects on the house that he had recently bought in a Russian village, and we see a long view of the fields it overlooks. As the camera holds the shot, slowly zooming out, the image takes on the character of a painting, beautifully balanced and serene. Another shot looking up a hillside at the earth and grass is so perfectly composed it becomes almost abstract; the camera position then shifts only slightly and it takes on a whole new character. Yet another image, of goats gathering round a tree, is again so perfect you could imagine it were deliberately staged, impossible of course.
This is Tarkovsky’s magnificence, finding a sublime expressiveness in framing and composition, and a willingness to hold the shot for long enough for it to evoke a poetic meaning. The documentary gradually becomes a rumination on Tarkovsky’s nostalgia for his lost home; it ends with the same poem as it started, its repetition finding new meaning in the context of these closing images.
Chris Marker’s film essay One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich was filmed three years later, in 1986. The ‘one day’ is with Tarkovsky on his deathbed in Paris. He has developed lung cancer and is a pale shadow. His son has arrived at the airport, a poignant reunion after the disbelieving Soviet authorities eventually gave Andrei junior permission to leave the country. He is also working on the post-production of his final film The Sacrifice and will view an almost-finished cut in his hospital room.
We move a few months back in time, to the set of The Sacrifice as a much-healthier Tarkovsky directs the famous final shot of that film with a buoyant enthusiasm and energy. That long shot, one of the most magical in all film, is a fiendishly complex external scene when the protagonist played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson sets fire to his house. The camera follows in turn Josephson, family members, medics in an ambulance and a woman on a bicycle, as the building becomes engulfed in flames. This is the second attempt; in the first take the camera mechanism jammed and there was no recoverable footage, the entire house set destroyed by the flames had to be rebuilt. There wouldn’t be a third opportunity, so the stakes are high.
Tarkovsky blocks and rehearses in meticulous detail – “don’t let them catch you”, “run as a group, don’t spread out”. We get another insight into Tarkovsky’s way of working with framing and images: the film was shot by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, but unusually Tarkovsky has his own camera on the dolly, paralleling Nyqvist’s. We’re told that initially the cinematographer was surprised that Tarkovsky seemed to be taking his role, but accepted and acquiesced.
Marker’s 55-minute film essay considers Tarkovsky’s repeated motifs and images. Marker is best known of course for La Jetee and Sans Soleil and was a unique voice in cinema himself of course.
As usual, Marker’s scripted voice-over is calm, meditative, contemplative, and insightful. It compares footage from all of Tarkovsky’s films, draws comparisons and parallels. He observes their elemental nature. The scene in The Sacrifice shows earth, fire, water and air (the distance between the camera and the action), and many of Tarkovsky’s images emphasise one or more of these primal elements. The rain, a force of nature, has a spiritual essence. Fire is as much about creation as destruction. His camera gazes at pools, earth and roots. The air, the wind, is an invisible hand such as at the start of Mirror.
Marker also explores how Tarkovsky’s films often contemplate art itself. Every one of his films features paintings that mirror the mood or the psychology of the film, sometimes literal mirrors have the same effect. And art can be transcendent and mysterious. Paintings express a deep meaning in Solaris and Ivan’s Childhood, and in Andrei Nevsky, a film about art itself, the movie ends with a contemplation of icons.
The film considers how his films were victims of Soviet censorship, recalling the absurdity of Stalin including the apocryphal radio recording incident later depicted in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. Despite the cultural thaw, the authorities insisted on changes that affected the subtle character of his films. That censorship eventually caused Tarkovsky to leave Russia to be come an exile, homeless.
Marker notes the importance of houses for Tarkovsky, not just in that key scene in The Sacrifice but in all his work. In his films, Tarkovsky was “raising an imaginary house, a unique house where all the rooms open onto one another, and all lead to the same corridor. Opening a door by chance, the actors of Mirror could cross paths with those from Nostalghia“.
Shortly after that ‘one day’ was filmed, Tarkovsky died of his lung cancer on 29th December 1986, his final film completed. His funeral was held, rather aptly, in Paris’s Andrei Nevsky cathedral.
Taken together, these two documentaries offer a fascinating portrait of Tarkovsky in the latter part of his career. In their own ways, both films go beyond factual documentary. They touch on similar themes including the poetry of images, the transcendence of art, and the yearning of an exile without a home.Follow @davefilmblog