Never has there been a people whose creative minds are so obsessed with the question of who they are and what their destiny is as the Russians. The Latvian-born thinker Isaiah Berlin traced this tendency back to Pyotr Chaadayev, a nineteenth-century Moscow salon fixture and dissident who was declared insane and put under house arrest after he upset the tsar by declaring imperial Russia a cultural wasteland that had never given the world anything of value. Was Russia, with its Orthodox churches, a forlorn outcast from the rest of Christian Europe, sentenced to barbarism, or was it a unique civilization with its own higher spiritual purpose? Debate raged between westernizers and Slavophiles. The poet Alexander Pushkin wrote to his friend Chaadayev: “I’m far from thrilled with everything I see around me. As a writer, I’m annoyed. As a man of discernment, I’m insulted. Yet I wouldn’t trade my fatherland for anything in the world.”
Fast-forward to the 1970s in the Soviet Union, and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky had come no closer to a resolution of the tortured ambivalence toward his nation that seemed the lot of the Russian artist. A portion of Pushkin’s letter to Chaadayev is read aloud in Mirror (1975), Tarkovsky’s most personal film, which more than anything else is a meditation on what it means to be at home in, or fatally a child of, Russia. Pushkin argues in the passage that Russia saved Western civilization by absorbing the Tatar conquests of the Middle Ages (Tarkovsky had depicted the brutal raids of the fifteenth century in 1966’s Andrei Rublev, on the life of the titular icon painter). Tarkovsky’s own Slavophile leanings were finally not enough to keep him in the USSR, as the climate of renewed censorship that began to ramp up in the midsixties, following the thaw that took place under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, increased the filmmaker’s problems with the state bureaucracy and made life there intolerable for him. Nor could he happily live anywhere else. He would defect after traveling to Italy to shoot his sixth feature, Nostalghia (1983). That film’s final image—the homesick writer in front of a Russian dacha, inside Italian cathedral walls—suggests unsoothable cultural dislocation in exile.
Mirror was the fourth of Tarkovsky’s seven features, and it is his most oneiric and resistant to interpretation. In its prelude, a child on a television screen receives hypnotherapy for his stutter, and his speech becomes fluid; it is as if an oppressive spell has been broken. It’s the kind of mysterious event devoid of explanatory, scene-setting context that happens a lot in Tarkovsky’s films. He believed the world was animated by miraculous energies we have no business trying to explain (least of all to the state lackeys of limited sensitivity and imagination who demanded changes to his scripts). Instances of the uncanny abound in Mirror—acts of physics in motion, independent of humans. A heat mark of vapor evaporates from a tabletop, as nebulous as disembodied breath. A bottle rolls onto the floor, unnoticed, while the eyes of a family are riveted on a burning barn. Déjà vu and a shock of electricity startle a boy picking up fallen coins. These disruptions and shifts in atmosphere are not as unambiguously beyond natural laws as those of Tarkovsky’s movies that tend more toward science fiction—the girl’s telekinetic, glass-moving stare in Stalker (1979), for instance—but they alert us to the fact that this is a world that is not inert. It teems with elemental forces. Rain falls, fires blaze, and winds rise in Mirror, as a restless camera glides with what seems a life of its own, unmoored from the perspective of any human gaze, and animating material reality with its attention.
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