By Jeffrey Overstreet
As he filmed Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky, the documentarian achieved his goal—he gained a better understanding of his famous, enigmatic Russian subject.
But Dmitry Trakovsky walked away from the project with something even more important. And so will those who seek out his film.
What a daunting idea it must have been.
Few filmmakers challenge audiences more than Andrei Tarkovsky. His seven films often seem impenetrable on a first viewing. Nevertheless, this Soviet filmmaker has made an impression on the international film world comparable to that of Bresson, Dreyer, and Ozu. Quoting the great Ingmar Bergman, one interviewee says that Tarkovsky “moved freely in rooms where Bergman could open a door a little and look in.”
His interviews were similarly challenging. He was prone to saying things like “Death doesn’t exist.”
Those particular words haunt Dmitry.
“Was he speaking metaphorically, in the sense that we live on through our works, or in the memory of others?” he asks. “Or did the transcendence of death mean something more concrete to him?”
This sets up his mission statement: “I wish to come closer to Tarkovsky’s seemingly impenetrable words by considering his own life after death. But who knows where I will stumble upon him? In a thought? An object? An empty field? I’m beginning to search for Tarkovsky, not in the past, but in all that he has left behind.”
For some of his interviewees, Tarkovsky lives on in the radical nature of his poetic filmmaking techniques. He worked by assembling raw footage and then eliminating superfluous material, believing that the film itself would make the decisions, telling him which edits to make, revealing its own meaning. “Death underscores the meaningful in a person’s life,” says professor and linguist Vyacheslav Ivanov, paraphrasing both Tarkovsky and Pasolini, “and in film one must know how to do the same using cinematic means.”
Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky seems almost frustrated with Tarkovsky’s influence. He notes that any filmmaker who captures an authentic picture of Russia’s reality is accused of copying Tarkovsky.
In Venice, Professor Fabrizio Borin speaks of how the films express Tarkovsky’s fierce convictions. According to Borin, Tarkovsky believed that human society is diseased because it has “pointed to the centrality of man instead of towards the consideration that man is one of many elements that belong to a plurality of subjects in the universe.”
In other words, we need to get over ourselves, and catch a greater vision.
This wasn’t just Tarkovsky’s subject; it was his way of working. Michal Leszczylowski, editor of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, remembers Tarkovsky saying, “You have to be the servant of a work of art, and not the master.”
Leszczylowski’s just one of many who have personal anecdotes to share. Tarkovsky is clearly alive and well in their memories.
Tarkovsky’s son, Andrei Andreevich Tarkovsky, recounts his family’s history. Others speak of him as if he never left. “I still feel his presence,” says Donatella Baglivo, who filmed a unique documentary on Tarkovsky in the ‘80s.
Dmitry also visits Angelo Perla, director of the Italian art gallery in which Tarkovsky filmed a painting called “Madonna del Parto”—apparently the only known fresco of a pregnant Madonna—for his film Nostalghia. Perla doesn’t just remember Tarkovsky’s visit; he reveres the man, and boasts of playing him in a local theater production.
But Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky is more than just a study of the man and his methods. It’s an encounter with something more: the mysteries that Tarkovsky invited his audience, peers, and collaborators to behold.
Filmmaker Manuele Cecconello speaks of how Tarkovsky’s images express “a yearning for the sacred.” And the younger Tarkovsky speaks of his father’s constant interest in “mysterious, enigmatic happenings.” (How many have noticed that December 28, the day that the famous filmmaker died, appeared prominently—like a prophecy—in one of his films?) Now the son is on his own quest for a “spiritual understanding of truth.”
“Each genius makes us sensitive to things which we haven’t noticed before,” says Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi, one of Tarkovsky’s closest friends. He gives personal examples of ordinary moments that Tarkovsky’s films have helped him see with new eyes, like rain spilling from a tin roof. “[Tarkovsky] enriched us,” he says. “We owe him something.”
Gregory Pomerants, who Dmitry describes as “one of Russia’s most free-thinking intellectual and spiritual guides,” finds Tarkovsky’s work to be a launching pad into engagement with the deepest mysteries of the human spirit, taking us to “the inner-most layer...where our soul, like a bay, meets with the ocean of the divine.”
Having seen Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky twice, I’m certain I will revisit it often, because the testimonies enliven my appreciation for, and questions about, the gift of art.
Further, the film inspires me to return to Tarkovsky’s films which dare me to peer through strange doors into riveting mysteries.
In this, Dmitry models how we might best honor those “geniuses” who have blessed us with transforming visions of truth. Rather than fixating on the genius like a fanboy, he helps us see what it was the Tarkovsky sought to reveal.
I think Tarkovsky would have found this film a blessing. He would not have desired a monument of effusive praise. His friend Zanussi testifies that the filmmaker, on his deathbed, said, “Please remind people I want to be remembered as a sinner.” Astonished, Zanussi protested. But he concludes, “Andrei was always trying to become that better human being...and probably a better Christian, because he was deeply Christian.”
For those of us who have barely begun to interpret the mysteries Tarkovsky revealed, we needn’t be too eager to put words to what we’ve encountered. When Dmitry visits Domiziana Giordano, still gorgeous almost thirty years after she starred in Nostalghia, she pulls the original script off a bedroom shelf as if it were a holy relic and thumbs through it, laughing at how little she understands it.
And yet, she laments the apparent shallowness of projects she has done since then. Describing a talk show she had visited that morning, Giordano says, “They were talking about nothing. And I asked myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” By contrast, her experience with Tarkovsky convinced her that they were “not just fooling around with people’s money and souls. We were working to make something great.”