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USSR, 1974

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Production: Mosfilm; color, 35mm; running time: 106 minutes.

Producer: E. Waisberg; screenplay: Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksandr Misharin; photography: Georgi Rerberg; editor: L. Feiginova; assistant directors: L. Tarkovskaya, V. Karchenko, M. Chugunova; music: Eduard Artemiev, J. S. Bach, Giovanni Battista Pergolese, Henry Purcell; costumes: N. Fomina; sound: Semyon Litvinov.

Cast: Margarita Terekhova (Alexei's mother/Natalia); Philip Yankovsky (Alexei, aged 15); Ignat Daniltsev (Ignat/Alexei, aged 12); Oleg Yankovsky (Father); Nikolai Grinko (Man at printing shop); Alla Demidova (Lisa); Yuri Nazarov (Military instructor).



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At a press conference in 1975, Andrei Tarkovsky asserted that Mirror "is no more than a straightforward, simple story" which "doesn't have to be made any more understandable"; yet it has acquired an intimidating reputation for inaccessibility and self-indulgence. All the incidents are taken from his own or his relatives' lives, three members of his family can be seen or heard in it and there are several dream sequences; but why should anyone who is not a Tarkovsky be interested in them? As for the occasional extracts from documentary footage, notably of Soviet troops in the Second World War, are they anything more than disconnected bits of history, especially now that the Soviet Union is as dead and gone as the Holy Roman Empire? Yet Mirror does go on impressing those who see it through and can resonate in the mind long afterwards, whether through specific images or as an atmosphere, a sense of dream and memory coming together. Perhaps the best way into it is through another of Tarkovsky's remarks at that press conference, his invitation to "look, learn, use the life shown here as an example." Looking and learning do not require a Ph.D. in Tarkovsky Studies. Even a child can do all three—which is another clue to Tarkovsky, for whom children seem to have represented idealism (as in Ivan's Childhood), inventiveness (as in Andrei Rublev), and other qualities which adult life may distort or erode.

Mirror begins with a boy in a city apartment watching a television demonstration of hypnosis; a young woman stands in a field at twilight, smoking a cigarette and waiting for someone, though not for the soldier who passes by; her son plays with a cat while a voice reads a poem which refers to a "domain . . . beyond the mirror" (in Kitty Hunter-Blair's translation). These first few minutes suggest that two separate periods of time are being depicted and that the "mirror" of the title—as in Lewis Carroll's story Through the Looking Glass or Jean Cocteau's film Orphée—is a gateway between two worlds. The suggestion (not so much mysticism as truism) is confirmed later on, when the same woman is reflected in a real mirror that shows her to be much older.

This is in fact Tarkovsky's mother, the boy in what we learn is the 1930s represents Tarkovsky, the voice on the soundtrack is that of his father (the poet Arseny Tarkovsky) and the 1970s boy is his son. But these purely personal facts actually matter much less than they would in a more mainstream, linear narrative, precisely because of the intercutting between story (private memories) and newsreel (public memories), reality and dreams, children and adults. The connections among these elements are made clearer rather than more obscure by Tarkovsky's careful alternation of colour, sepia tinting and black and white, as well as by the slow pace of every scene. Thus the almost always absent father (in the 1930s), seen returning at last in soldier's uniform, is linked to footage of the Soviet army slogging through marshland and to a comic scene of military training disrupted by the instructor's incompetence and the boys' distractedness. The almost always present mother is recalled by her resemblance to a woman in a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, seen in the 1970s. Both of these lonely people are reflected by shots of Spanish refugees living in Moscow and, perhaps, by contrast with the crowds hailing Mao Tse-tung in shots of China. Again, the early log cabin, isolated between fields and woods, is paralleled by the later Moscow apartment, another refuge from human and climatic coldness.

The dissolving of the everyday barriers among these phenomena culminates in the dream sequences, each grounded by being shown to be inside the mind of the boy in the 1930s. He sees water cascading through the room and down the walls after watching his mother wash her hair; the house burns in dreams after burning in reality; he imagines his mother floating away from her bed while he is waiting anxiously for her to emerge from a doctor's surgery; the wind moves across the meadow as his father would if he were to come back.

Tarkovsky's meditative approach, his presentation of a broad range of loosely connected images and events in a variety of cinematic formats, actually frees audiences from the need for too many footnotes or translations. Mirror tells us something of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in Stalin's 1930s and Brezhnev's 1970s but it also evokes as much recognition as surprise, for even viewers who know nothing of Tarkovsky's life, Soviet history or, for that matter, the paintings which he "quotes" in some scenes, know as much as he did about nostalgia, dreaming and other forms of longing, and about comparing and contrasting what is, and what was, with what might have been.

In Mirror Tarkovsky opens up his world—arguably more successfully than in his later films, which are less autobiographical but also more tightly bound to an increasingly explicit and unsubtle religiosity— just as, in the film, his son opens a book of Leonardo's paintings, inviting readings that will differ from viewer to viewer, and indeed (given the film's main themes) at different times in any viewer's life. Orson Welles, whom Tarkovsky greatly admired, once said that a film is "a ribbon of dreams." Mirror is an example of the many ways in which filmmakers and audiences together can transform private dreams into shared visions.

—Patrick Heenan