*19. MIRROR (1975)

Zerkalo

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“For Proust the concept of time is more important than time itself. For Russians that’s not an issue. We Russians have to plead our case against time. With authors who wrote prose based on childhood memories, like Tolstoy, Garshin, and many others, it’s always an attempt to atone for the past, always a form of repentance.” –Andrei Tarkovsky

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Filipp Yankovskiy, voices of Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and Arseny Tarkovsky

PLOT: Alexei’s life story is told through jumbled flashbacks and dreams that mainly involve his mother. Abandoned by his father, he spent his youth in a remote cabin with his mother and siblings. He grows up to have a child of his own, but his relationship with the boy’s mother is only cordial, and he’s grown apart from his own mother.

Still from Mirror [Zerkalo] (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally conceiving the film as a memoir about his own childhood memories of WWII, but gradually adding in elements from his later life, Tarkovsky began work on this story as early as 1964.
  • The poetry heard in the film is written and read by Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei’s father. Andrei’s mother appears as herself in the film.
  • Tarkovsky reportedly made 32 edits of the film, complaining that none of them worked, before settling on this as the definitive version.
  • The Soviet authorities refused to allow Mirror to screen at Cannes.
  • Mirror ranked #19 in Sight & Sound‘s Critics’ Poll and #9 in the Director’s Poll in 2012.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Maria floating in a dream while a dove flutters above her.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Apparition history lesson; levitating mom

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Mirror is an intensely personal, extremely diffused meditation on the meaning of life from one of cinema’s greatest artists. Although insanely difficult, many cinephiles find it intensely moving as an accumulation of individual images that flow like finely crafted verses of surrealistic poetry.


Restoration trailer for Mirror [Zerkalo]

COMMENTS: If you enjoy being confused, jump into Mirror with no advance preparation; you will not understand a thing. You’ll have difficulty distinguishing who the various characters are, a problem exacerbated by the fact that different parts are played by the same actors; you’ll wonder why the film moves from color to black and white to stock footage; you’ll scrunch up your face at the passages of poetry read in voiceover, which sometimes seem to comment on the action and at other moments appear abstract and opaque; and you’ll occasionally have difficulty differentiating between what is happening in reality and what is fantasy. Soviet authorities reportedly initially deemed Zerkalo “incomprehensible,” a description first-time viewers will be tempted to appropriate. They did not ban the movie, although they refused to send it to Cannes and gave it only a token release in state cinemas. Though hardly conforming to notions of Soviet Realism, it was too baffling, one assumes, to be deemed counter-revolutionary. Although its conceit is simple—a man’s life, described in a series of memories and dreams—Mirror can hardly be understood on a single pass, and perhaps not firmly grasped without additional research. It will never yield all its secrets.

Besides a number of scenes that are clearly dreams, Mirror is filled with odd, out-of-place set pieces. It begins with a boy tuning into a televised demonstration of a female hypnotherapist curing a boy of stuttering. The significance of this scene is unclear: the movie will defiantly retain its stutter. A scene with Alexei’s son, Ignati, sees him finding a mysterious woman in the apartment after his mother leaves, only to vanish when another mysterious woman arrives at the door, but leaving behind an evaporating imprint on the varnished table. As he would later inside Domenico’s hovel in Nostalghia, Tarkovsky plays with impossible architectures: two children stand in a doorway watching a burning barn. A third child walks to a window at the opposite end of the house and looks out to see the exact same scene—except that now it’s raining. These imperfections resemble Solaris‘ flawed worldbuidling endeavors—slippages into imperfectly rendered realities, now arising from human rather than alien minds.

It’s curious that, although we eventually figure out (or learn through reading elsewhere) that the incidents in the film all revolve around the writer/poet Alexei, we never see the adult protagonist—at least, not identified as such. (An unidentified man’s face is glimpsed, for example, at the opening of the levitation scene.) Two different actors portray the boy, but as an adult, we only hear Alexei’s voice. This choice reinforces the film’s subjective perspective, highlighting adult Alexei’s centrality through his conspicuous absence in the frame. (Some scenes do not come from Alexei’s experience at all; his mother’s bad day at the printing company, for example.)The fact that the central character is never seen highlights the idea that our individual personalities don’t arise spontaneously out of nothing; they are determined by our relationships with other people and the world we live in. This mirror, ironically, reflects everything but the self, which is too big to be held in a pane of polished metal or on a strip of film.

With the exception of the burning barn, which seems like it could have been a child’s first clear memory, the episodes Tarkovsky chooses to highlight in this memoir rarely feel monumental. A chance meeting with a wandering doctor. Wind rustling through bushes. A childhood trip to a neighbor’s home. Representative conversations with his son’s mother that have taken place many times. This is likely part of Tarkovsky’s point. Honest biography is not made up of epiphany after epiphany; what sticks in the memory the strongest earns its prominence through repetition: the look and smell of our childhood home, our mother’s face. Memories all jumbled together, out of time, making up a life—not real events, but memories, faulty, fractured, deconstructed and reconstructed. Each miniature vignette only suggests more questions, pointing to a larger context too huge to ever fully explore. Mirror exults in the mundane and the banal, elevating them to poetry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mirror jettisons anything close to a plot, stirring past and present, colour and monochrome, newsreel and fiction into a kaleidoscope of the director’s ponderings on childhood, memory and a century of Mother Russia… Mirror’s personal and historical reflections aren’t meant to slot together conventionally, instead flashing in and out of each other with dreamlike whimsy.”–Jonathan Crocker, BBC

“…in Mirror there’s always something happening, and it’s usually surprising and strange.”–David Cairns, Electric Sheep (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Mirror (1975)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Mirror (1975) – The Criterion Collection entry for the film, with the trailer and an essay by Carmen Gray

Mirror (1974) – British Film Institute entry on Mirror

Mirror – Sam Ishii-Gonzalez discusses the film in the context of Tarkovsky’s theories of time for Senses of Cinema

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE MIRROR (1975)‘s original article on the film for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: The 2021 Criterion Collection edition of Mirror (buy) is a 2K upgrade of their previous print. The disc now includes the bonus documentary Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer, a 2019 feature-length tribute composed by son Andrei A. Tarkovsky, featuring his father speaking in voiceover from decades of archival interviews. The documentary covers each of the director’s seven films in detail but, due to the film’s biographical content, it dovetails especially well with Mirror. A second disc houses another documentary, an hour-long feature devoted exclusively to Mirror; a feature on Georgy Rerberg, Tarkovsky’s underacknowledged cinematographer; and interviews with Tarkovsky, his co-writer, and his composer. As always, Criterion includes a meaty booklet on the film. All features are available on both DVD and Blu-ray except for a peek at an early script of Mirror, which is exclusive to the Blu.

Mirror can be streamed on the Criterion Channel (paid subscription) or via IMDB TV (free, but with intrusive ads that damage the experience).

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