The Mirror 12/01/2009
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Physical; spiritual; supernatural; all encompassing. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 masterpiece, Zerkalo (or, The Mirror in english) is one of the most powerful testaments to cinema’s ability to alter time and therefore our perception of the world. It highlights the beauty we mostly live ignorant of, and transcends all conventional notions of what a film can be. To pick it apart, in order to derive a specific meaning from it, would be to reduce it; simplify it; belittle it. An injustice of the highest order. I believe it is more appropriate to share my personal experience with the film instead of critically analyzing it. Let it be known that to attempt to even describe the film would be a failure and an affront. The English language is not adequate for explaining neither the profundity nor the inexplicable magic of cinema within The Mirror. So, yes, to a certain extent, this article I am writing is moot. I persist, nevertheless, for to share my enthusiasm for the cinema is one of my strongest inclinations.
To this day, The Mirror stands as one of the boldest entries in the medium. Tarkovsky is known for his poetic qualities, something inherited in part from his father, a celebrated Russian poet by the name of Arseniy Tarkovsky. In the film, some of his poems are read aloud by the author himself. To a certain extent, Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmmaking is way of translating the stark beauty of his father’s language to the screen. To leave it so simply, however, is foolish. Rather, his filmmaking takes the essence of this poetry and uses it to entirely different means and ends, expanding on the potential of artistry in ways only the cinema is capable of. Tarkovsky is able to take time and change its speed to allow us to experience life as if it were a painting on the wall, poetry on the page, the writing in a novel, and a livid dream unfolding with unparalleled clarity. In one shot, Tarkovsky holds on a painting. How it relates to the film is mysterious, but also intense and clear.
Portrait of a Young Woman with a Juniper Twig (Ginevra Benci, probably by Leonardo)
A person has one body,
Singleton, all on its own,
The soul has had more than enough
Of being cooped up inside
A casing with ears and eyes
The size of a five-penny piece
And skin - just scar after scar -
Covering a structure of bone.
Out through the cornea it flies
Into the bow of the sky,
On to an icy spoke,
To a wheeling flight of birds,
And hears through the barred window
Of this living prison-cell
The crackle of forests and corn-fields
The trumpet of seven seas.
A bodyless soul is sinful
Like a body without a shirt -
No intention, nothing gets done,
No inspiration, never a line.
A riddle with no solution:
Who is going to come back
After dancing on the dance- floor
Where there's nobody to dance?
And I dream of a different world
Dressed in other clothes:
Burning as it runs
From timidity to hope,
Spirituous and shadowless
Like fire it travels the earth,
Leaves lilac behind on the table
To be remebered by.
Run along then, child, don't fret
Over poor Eurydice,
Bowl your copper hoop along
Whip it through the world,
So long as even quarter pitch
With cheerful tone and cold
In answer to each step you take
The earth rings in your ears.
The contrast between the painting and the poems and the film that contains them is sharper than it would be in any other movie. This may seem odd, considering how The Mirror could aptly be described as both painterly and poetic, but the film does not use these other art forms as crutches, like most films use literature. Tarkovsky’s work relies not on any other medium and The Mirror defines cinema as an autonomous art form. The Mirror is cinema. And cinema is everything.
Tarkovsky is not at all interested in narrative, something he progressively moved toward throughout his career. His films became less and less bound to storytelling, and more focused on that which is unique in film. He focuses on the cinema’s ability to control, be it “sculpting in time” or transporting the viewer into another realm altogether. When watching The Mirror, I find myself on a plain of existence previously unvisited. A plain where I find myself finally beginning to understand life and the world around me. The universe and that which lies even beyond it. Of course, I am speaking of that which is intangible and impossible to express neither through writing nor speech. Perhaps the tears I shed and the hairs that stood on end while watching the film speak louder than words.
From early on, I found myself moved and elevated. What unfolded on screen was not necessarily dramatic or even comprehensible in typical fashion. In other words, The Mirror relates not to one’s mind, but to their very soul. The Mirror is the visual of being. The characters are not dealt with in any traditional way. They aren’t developed through plot, but through setting and feeling. I found myself understanding the people in the film better than any other characters in any other movie. Yet, I couldn’t tell you their names, describe their personalities, or even begin to describe any of them as well-rounded characters. But in the moment the characters exist on the screen, blinding light shining through moving film, I understand them completely. I feel as if I have always known them; that I am them. I feel as they feel and am overcome with the consolation I secretly seek each evening I spend in the cinema. And to spend an evening in the cinema with The Mirror, having it take advantage of one’s persistence of vision, is nothing short of a privilege. If you are presented with the opportunity, I insist that one should do all that is within their power to do so.
The film changes several times from full colour to black & white. When these changes occur, it feels as though we are switching from one form of consciousness to another, and back again. One does not need to make sense of the film in a convenient way. To be lost in The Mirror is a wonderful thing.
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time, he describes what a masterpiece is, and in the process, accurately describes my experience with his film:
"Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When a link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime purging trauma. Within that aura unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognize and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential and the furthest reaches of our emotions."
Earlier in this article, I mentioned how attempting to analyze or even describe the film would be to belittle it by simplifying it. I can, however, simplify my description of my personal experience with Zerkalo:
I walked into the cinema. I looked into the mirror. I saw everything.