«I don’t know a country with as many talented people as Russia. But something is happening that could destroy culture — that is, the physical possibility to work.» This observation, heard in documentary Andrey Tarkovsky. A Cinema Prayer , strikes one as perennially relevant. It could easily apply to Russia’s creative scene under Putin’s regime today, which has recently seen a crackdown on rappers and pop artists viewed by more conservative sectors of society as a corrupting influence on youth. But it came, in fact, from the mouth of Andrey Tarkovsky, as Brezhnev’s succession in 1964 brought Kruschev’s Thaw of relaxed censorship to an end, and hard times back for artists. Widely considered one of Russia’s greatest film directors — in fact, one of the best cinema has ever known — Tarkovsky produced just seven features over a decades-long career, amid relentless pressure from the Soviet authorities to compromise his personal vision. His words pinpoint the paradox (or simply, great tragedy) of a nation that has given rise to geniuses of the calibre of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ukraine-born Kazimir Malevich, but made them pay for their power, stifling the expression of anyone out of step with state ideology.
Andrey Tarkovsky. A Cinema Prayer was made by Tarkovsky’s son, Andrey A. Tarkovsky. He allows his father to comment on his approach to filmmaking and his conception of the artist entirely in his own words, gathering recordings together with archival footage of him on set, and clips from his masterpieces. As a tribute, it is clearly a very personal labour of love, but that does not prevent it from having wider concerns to convey, in the form of the principles that meant everything to the director and were the key to his imagery of such authenticity.
An Inalienable matter
The nature of freedom is a subject that has obsessed artists in the Soviet Union, both during the communist era and after its collapse (that people gained freedom, but didn’t know what to do with it is a common refrain heard in many former republics and satellite states regarding their rocky transition to capitalism). For Tarkovsky, rights are something that can be taken away, but inner freedom is a personal, inalienable matter. It is intrinsic to any spiritual being — and essential for artists. Often, truly free individuals are to be found in the most politically oppressive places, he claims. But in trying to safeguard his authentic vision, Tarkovsky came up against the strict dictates of the Soviet state, which had a monopoly on the production system and oversaw it from concept to finished film and distribution in a highly centralised process. Their bureaucrats made his life hell. They saw his mystical, oblique and poetic cinema as impossibly self-indulgent and too close to religion. For them, anything that wasn’t heroic propaganda for the class struggle was deeply suspect. While books could circulate underground through samizdat (illegally produced) copies, cinema needed crews, equipment, and — held in dear esteem by Tarkovsky — the mass public audience.
Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood (1962) had made him, at thirty, a major director internationally when it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, though the Soviet authorities looked askance at its anti-war overtones. The increasingly repressive climate made his subsequent films a constant struggle. Andrei Rublev (1966), for instance, being about a 15th-century icon painter, was hardly earthly or atheistic, while Mirror (1975), being a semi-autobiographical mesh of childhood memories, did not dissolve a sense of self into the mass cause. Finally, he had enough. He went to shoot a film in Italy in 1982 and never returned. This exile, which we might want to think of as a happy escape, was, in fact, another aspect of his tragedy: he suffered a painful longing for his homeland, not least because his son was still there, and not initially allowed to leave. This stung all the more from a sense of betrayal. People around the world were clambering to watch his films, so how could the Russia he was so deeply attached to insist he was not wanted or needed? While not overtly political, Tarkovsky (who died in exile in 1986) believed poets (in any medium) are always national, whether or not they want to be, connecting with a public needing no particular education, just a receptive soul to intuit meaning. Art is mysterious like a prayer, not a tool for didactic instruction by example, he believed — the core of any healthy society.
Often, truly free individuals are to be found in the most politically oppressive places
Tarkovsky’s tortured seriousness and spirituality are somewhat out of fashion in today’s hyper-capitalistic terrain of irony and internet memes. But as civilisation hurtles at ever-greater velocity through a state of shallow, post-truth disorientation in which dissidence is increasingly difficult to define or position, Andrey Tarkovsky. A Cinema Prayer is a timely reminder of what defying the state for art once meant.
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