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Review: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Autobiographical Masterpiece Mirror on Criterion Blu-ray

Tarkovsky’s elegiac rumination on time and memory receives a superlative transfer and bounty of bonus features from Criterion.

4.5

Mirror

Andrei Tarkovsky’s brooding, resplendent, semi-autobiographical Mirror invites a particular sort of reflection, much like the titular object, given the uncanny reversals of perspective that take place in its gloomy depths. The film’s organizing principal is the kaleidoscopic consciousness of middle-aged Alexei. Though we barely catch more than a glimpse of him, his voiceover (read by actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky) helps guide us across three different time periods: the years before WWII, which he spends in his grandparents’ summer house; the postwar era, living with his single mother, Maria (Margarita Terekhova); and what appears to be the present day, as Alexei lies in bed, possibly dying. Further compounding the film’s nonlinear approach are sudden shifts in register between memories, dreams, and the poetic reflections read by Tarkovsky’s father, Arseniy. All of this contributes to the film’s densely interwoven textures.

What grounds Mirror and renders it accessible is the earthy simplicity and indelible imagery of Georgy Rerberg’s cinematography. Even the most surreal visuals in the film—a woman levitating, a bottle rolling by itself onto the ground—possess an almost overwhelmingly tactile sensuousness. (The latter image seems to prefigure a similar, though differently motivated, incident from Tarkovsky’s next film, Stalker.) Elsewhere, the camera prowls the interior and grounds of the idyllic summer house, presenting events at an oblique angle by tracking laterally or diagonally away from the action. At other times, Tarkovsky frames the action in a mirror, only to slowly track away, thus revealing the artificiality of the initial setup.

As though to emphasize the ineluctable influence of heredity and environment across the generations, Tarkovsky casts the same actors in multiple roles: Ignat Daniltsev plays both Alexei as an adolescent and the man’s adolescent son, Ignat, while Terekhova not only appears as Alexei’s mother, but also as Alexei’s wife, Natalia, thereby inviting certain questions about the type of women men desire. And Tarkovsky blurs the lines between fiction and fact by including members of his own family among the cast. In addition to his father’s poetry readings, Tarkovsky’s wife, stepdaughter, and mother all appear in small roles.

Mirror is also one of Tarkovsky’s most slyly allusive films. There’s a French poster for Andrei Rublev glimpsed on Alexei’s apartment wall. Snowy fields dotted by frolicking schoolchildren recall the composition of Brueghel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow, which also figured prominently in Solaris. Other references situate the film within the larger Russian cultural context. Maria reminds a wayward physician (Anatoly Solonitsyn) of Anton Chekhov’s story “Ward Number Six,” wherein an upstart psychiatrist winds up committed to the same asylum ward he had recently ministered to. Later, Maria’s coworker Liza (Alla Demidova) compares her to an unlikeable character from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Devils, a work concerned with the pernicious influence of Western ideas on Russia society. These references create suggestive ripples that subtly expand our understanding of some otherwise opaque characters.

Ezra Pound famously defined the epic as “a poem including history.” Accordingly, Tarkovsky adds an epic dimension to the proceedings by folding in stock footage to enhance his portrait of an era. Footage of the Spanish Civil War reminds us that Russia was on the side of the anti-fascist Loyalists, and alter in the film we see Alexei’s mother hosting a gathering of Spanish refugees. Marching protestors waving aloft Mao’s Little Red Book signal the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, more or less the film’s present-day setting.

But the literal and figurative heart of film exhibits footage of Russian forces crossing Lake Syvash at a snail’s pace to meet the German advance, up to their knees in mud, trying in vain to ford tanks and other heavy ordnance. Arseniy Tarkovsky’s poetry informs us that most of these men (including the photographer) would be dead by day’s end. Nevertheless, he recites, “all are immortal. All is immortal.” Such is the persistence of memory, to which Tarkovsky’s gorgeous, elusive masterwork stands as an insuperable monument.

Image/Sound

Criterion presents Mirror in a new 2K scan from the original camera negative supplied by Mosfilm. Accommodating the sudden shifts in film stock between richly saturated color and high-contrast black and white, the image looks spectacular, with vivid hues, uncrushed blacks, and finely tuned grain levels throughout. The audio track is a Russian LPCM mono mix, which legibly articulates the dialogue and properly foregrounds the brief snatches of Bach and Purcell, not to mention composer Eduard Artemyev’s atonal electronic soundscapes.

Extras

The ample bonus materials for Mirror are spread across two Blu-ray discs. On the first is the documentary Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer, assembled by the director’s son. It’s a thought-provoking, career-spanning retrospective that provides lots of behind-the-scenes footage and photos of Tarkovsky at work, accompanied by his reflections on matters both aesthetic and spiritual. Put most succinctly, Tarkovsky defines the artist as having one hand placed solidly on the earth and the other grasping toward the heavens. In many ways, this documentary is the filmic equivalent of reading the director’s ruminative Sculpting in Time.

The second disc opens with an hour-long examination of Mirror from directors Louise Milne and Seán Martin, featuring talking-head contributions from colleagues and family members that delve further into the formation of the film. Then there are two on-camera interviews with key collaborators: Composer Eduard Artemyev, who worked with Tarkovsky on Solaris, Mirror, and Stalker, describes his job as being more akin to a sound designer than traditional soundtrack composer, and screenwriter Alexander Misharin discusses, among other things, his uncredited work as de facto editor on Andrei Rublev and Mirror’s long gestation period.

A 2007 documentary from Russian television covers the career of cinematographer Georgy “Genius” Rerberg, from working with director Andrei Konchalovsky on some early films, to getting the gig with Tarkovsky on Mirror and their eventual falling-out during the filming of Stalker. There are a couple of brief but incisive interviews with Tarkovsky from French television. Finally, the thick booklet contains a perceptive essay from critic Carmen Gray, along with the original film treatment and “literary script” for Mirror.

Overall

Andrei Tarkovsky’s elegiac rumination on time and memory receives a superlative transfer and a bounty of bonus features from the Criterion Collection.

Cast: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev, Larisa Tarkovskaya, Alla Demidova, Anatoly Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Tamara Ogorodnikova, Yuri Nazarov, Oleg Yankovsky, Filipp Yankovsky, Yuri Sventikov, Tatiana Reshetnikova, Innokenti Smoktunovsky Director: Andrei Tarkovsky Screenwriter: Alexander Misharin, Andrei Tarkovsky Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 107 min Rating: NR Year: 1975 Release Date: July 6, 2021 Buy: Video

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