by Nathan Dunne.
Black Dog, 464 pp., £29.95, February 2008, 978 1 906155 04 9
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Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema 
by Robert Bird.
Reaktion, 255 pp., £15.95, April 2008, 978 1 86189 342 0
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The first film Andrei Tarkovsky shot outside the Soviet Union was Nostalghia – spelled that way because ‘nostalgia’ is too weak an equivalent for the Russian word, the Russian emotion. Made in Italy in 1982-83, it begins with a visit to the Tuscan church where Piero della Francesca painted his fresco of the pregnant Virgin Mary, the Madonna del Parto. But the scene wasn’t shot there. James Macgillivray, in his contribution to a new volume of essays edited by Nathan Dunne, tells us that Tarkovsky had a reproduction of Piero’s painting installed in the crypt of another Romanesque church about 75 miles away. And though he always insisted that film be grounded in material fact – the church is real even if the fresco is not – he took other liberties with reality in his treatment of space and time.

The Russian protagonist, called Andrei and afflicted with homesickness, has come with his Italian interpreter, Eugenia, to look at the Madonna del Parto; but on arriving at the church he tells her he doesn’t want to go in, and she enters the crypt alone. ‘Three kinds of space dominate all Tarkovsky’s films,’ Robert Bird writes: ‘nature, the home, and the shrine or cathedral.’ The ‘cathedral space is demonstrated most fully at the beginning of Nostalghia . . . in the rigorously geometrical yet disconcertingly elusive space of a columned crypt’. One reason for transposing Piero’s fresco to the apse of this crypt must have been its columniation, which strikes us the moment we cut inside and envelops us along with Eugenia as we follow her from a distance on her way to the painting. ‘In church architecture, a grid of columns reinforces one’s orientation in space relative to the direction of the apse,’ Macgillivray observes. ‘In Tarkovsky’s hands, however, this grid becomes like a dark wood.’

Near the apse, Eugenia retreats a little and does a right-angle turn towards the camera. There is a cut to what we presume she’s looking at, but it’s the painting we see, though it isn’t in the direction of her glance. A cut on a character’s glance will conventionally show us the facing area, the reverse angle, after which we will usually return to the character. Here Tarkovsky breaks with convention and then goes back to it: from Eugenia’s glance he cuts to the painting she isn’t looking at, but from the painting he cuts back to Eugenia looking at it after all. He gives us contradictory cues; we can’t be sure whether we have or haven’t been viewing Piero’s fresco with her. And no sooner does she appear facing the apse than her attention shifts to a sacristan in the church, who asks her what she’s there for – as the director seems to be asking her – and she again faces the camera.

Actors in Tarkovsky’s films often look straight at the camera. This can be done without disturbing the illusion of reality, so long as the actor’s gaze is seen to stay within the fiction. Tarkovsky’s actors, however, turn their eyes to the camera in ways that unsettle the illusion, their gaze breaking out of the world of the film. We may wonder whether the actor is looking at us in the audience or responding to the filmmaker behind the camera; sometimes, the gaze is followed by a dream or memory sequence, or by some other sort of scene from elsewhere in time and space. In the science-fictional Solaris (1972), moving images from the past speak to the present on screens within the film, and characters watching those images as well as characters appearing in them look at the camera, which puts us right in the line of an exchange of glances between the present and the past. Simple still photography can achieve the same effect: the mother in Solaris gazes out at the viewer from a photograph; her look is haunting, yet this is just what people do – they look at the camera when having their picture taken. Tarkovsky makes us see what a remarkable thing we do when we exchange glances with a picture, how marvellous it is that eyes can gaze into another place and time. Perhaps the most affecting look at the camera in any of his films occurs near the end of Mirror (1975), when the mother, pregnant with the film’s protagonist and asked whether she wants a boy or a girl, thinks about the future that has come to pass and smilingly, tearfully, flickeringly glances in our direction.

Until its removal to a museum a few years ago, Piero’s pregnant Madonna was for a long time a shrine. Women would come and pray to her for a child of their own and for a safe birth. Eugenia tells the sacristan that she has just come to look; he advises her to kneel before the Virgin, but she can’t bring herself to do it. As he admonishes her for her lack of faith, she faces him and the camera, and we cut to a ritual of the faithful, a procession of women into the crypt carrying burning candles and a life-size statue of the Virgin. The procession moves forward, as Macgillivray notes, ‘to the very space in which Eugenia and the sacristan stand’ – yet Eugenia and the sacristan have unaccountably vanished, as if the ritual had made them disappear and taken their place. The sculpture of the Virgin is set before the painting it doubles, and as one of the pious women kneels down to pray, we cut back to Eugenia standing exactly where the woman kneels. The woman, the statue and the devotional ritual evaporate as soon as we return to Eugenia and the sacristan, who at times seem to glance offscreen towards the ritual proceedings but are never shown onscreen together with them. We alternate between Eugenia’s talk with the sacristan and a religious ceremony that inhabits the same space but never at the same time, as if it belonged to a parallel reality. Film, Tarkovsky maintained – he gave the example of the Lumière brothers’ movie of a train arriving at a station – is in essence ‘imprinted time’. The ceremony he staged at the shrine of the Madonna of Childbirth may be taken to represent another order of time from which the faithless Eugenia is excluded: not the time of the moment, present or past, but the time that endures over centuries, the collective memory preserved in the minds of the faithful and ritually enacted by them.

At the climax of the ceremony, a flock of birds is released from the sculpted Virgin’s belly. We might suppose that Eugenia is watching this spectacle, from which we cut to her and then, as she glances towards the camera, back to the birds flying around the apse; but she isn’t looking in that direction, and there are no birds in this shot of her, though we hear them chirping. With Tarkovsky we can never be sure what a character looking at the camera is looking at. Now in close-up, Eugenia looks again towards the camera, and we cut to Piero’s painting and zoom in on the serene countenance of his pregnant Virgin. Isn’t this, at least, from Eugenia’s point of view? Perhaps not, because from the Madonna we cut to Andrei outside the church, and he too is looking at the camera; though he didn’t go in to look at the painting, he seems to be returning its gaze. Where is he? The film has shifted from colour to black and white, and from Tuscany to Andrei’s memory or dream of Russia. Yet a bird’s feather now drifts into the landscape of his Russian remembrance: a material connection to the ritual of the Madonna that has eluded Eugenia. Somehow it is he, not she, who is looking at the Madonna del Parto, he not she who is truly in touch with its meaning.

I admire this opening sequence, which is a notable example of Tarkovsky’s distinctive, difficult style. But I can’t say I like the movie as a whole. Here is the director’s own account of his first look at the footage he shot for Nostalghia:

I was startled to find it was a spectacle of unrelieved gloom. The material was completely homogeneous, both in its mood and in the state of mind imprinted in it. This was not something I had set out to achieve . . . the camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming . . . I was at once astounded and delighted, because what had been imprinted on the film . . . proved that . . . the art of the screen is able, and even called, to become a matrix of the individual soul.

In earlier films like Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1969) or Mirror, Tarkovsky’s images may bear the imprint of the soul, but they aren’t confined to a single soul in a single mood. The Italian landscape in Nostalghia (as Natasha Synessios points out in her article for Dunne’s collection) is shrouded in mist and rendered indistinguishable from the protagonist’s mental landscape. Andrei’s soul remains in the Russia he left behind and imbues everything in the Italy around him. This is hard on his young interpreter. Told by the sacristan that women are meant for motherhood and shouldn’t think of happiness, Eugenia is sexually rejected by the glum Andrei – he misses his Russian wife, and the Madonna del Parto reminds him of her – and generally reproved by Tarkovsky (the other glum Andrei) as a personification of the selfish, stylish, liberated modern woman. When Eugenia looks at the camera, whatever she may be looking at within the film, we can imagine her facing the director as he looks at her from behind the camera, finding her wanting.

Slavoj Zizek, in ‘The Thing from Inner Space’, argues that Tarkovsky’s work is ‘intensely male centred’ and caught up in the opposition between the maternal and the sexual woman, the mother and the whore: ‘For Tarkovsky, the moment a woman accepts the role of being sexually desirable, she sacrifices . . . the spiritual essence of her being . . . and embraces a sterile mode of existence.’ Yet Eugenia is rejected not as a sexual woman but as a modern woman, not for her sexuality but for its dissociation from nature, which the estranged Russian takes as typical of an alienated modernity he repudiates. A traditionalist in many ways, and certainly in relation to women, Tarkovsky couldn’t fairly be considered either a misogynist or a prude: look at his sympathetic portrayal of the pagan woman in Andrei Rublev, who says that love, carnal or spiritual, is all the same. Though without sympathy for Eugenia, he warms to other desirable women in his movies, beginning with Masha, the nurse in Ivan’s Childhood, and including the extraordinary Margarita Terekhova, who plays both the protagonist’s wife and his mother in Mirror. At the start of the movie she sits on a fence gazing at a field. A man comes along and flirts with her. When he climbs up to sit beside her, the fence breaks and they both fall to the ground. He laughs: it’s a pleasure, he explains, to fall with a beautiful woman. If in psychoanalytic theory a man desires a wife in the image of his mother, in Mirror the mother is cast in the image of the desirable wife.

Stalker (1979) was the last film Tarkovsky made in Russia. Zizek is not alone in regarding it as the director’s masterpiece. It is an obscure parable about a forbidden zone, left over from some disaster, uninhabited and overgrown, into which the stalker, who is presented as a sort of priest, guides a writer and a scientist towards a mysterious room, in which your innermost wish will be granted – not what you ask for but what you really desire, which the room knows even if you do not. The writer and the scientist daren’t enter the room when they finally reach it, but the camera does enter and distantly watches them from its perspective – God’s reverse angle, as it were, on those of little faith. It’s possible the stalker made up the whole story about the miraculous room. But he appears to believe in it, or at least believes in belief, in finding room for faith amid the ruins. His wife speaks for him in a long soliloquy delivered straight to camera. When Eugenia faces the camera, we feel that she stands judged by the director; when the stalker’s wife addresses us, we feel that she is bearing witness. Her eyes are fixed on us as she gives evidence of her steadfast love for her husband through all they have suffered together. We may doubt him, but she believes in him, and we believe in her belief.

Zizek offers a materialist reading that he thinks goes against the filmmaker’s intentions: he construes the Zone as a ‘postindustrial wasteland’ where the stuff of modern civilisation is reclaimed by nature and the ‘abstract universality’ governing our social existence gives way to the concrete reassertion of material life. If it weren’t for ‘his cinematic materialism, the direct physical impact of the texture of his films’, Tarkovsky, Zizek maintains, ‘would be just another Russian religious obscurantist’. But, Synessios observes, Tarkovsky inherited from the Russian religious tradition a ‘fundamental belief in the unity of matter and spirit’ – a belief manifested in the form of the icon, which ‘represents the marriage between the material and the divine’. Tarkovsky’s textured moving images, not exactly realistic but vividly substantial, thick with the feel of things, descend from this iconic commingling of body and soul.

‘I was and remain a Soviet artist,’ Tarkovsky wrote in a letter to his father, who had questioned his decision to stay in the West after Nostalghia. How he could stay in the West yet remain a Soviet artist he didn’t have much chance to work out; he had barely completed his next film, Sacrifice (1986), in Sweden before he died of lung cancer at the age of 54. His response to his father shows his discomfort with the role of the Soviet defector, the artist wronged by Communism, which some were calling on him to play. It is true that he met with interference and obstruction from the Soviet authorities, but it is also true that in the Soviet Union he was able to make films he couldn’t have made in the West. He was well aware of international cinema – he admired Antonioni and Bergman, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, Buñuel and Bresson – but he was brought up in the tradition of Soviet cinema, the montage school that flourished after the Revolution, the Socialist Realism dominant under Stalin, and the new wave that emerged at the time of Khrushchev, which is where he came in.

He took issue with the most celebrated Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. For Tarkovsky, time imprinted in the moving image is the lifeblood of cinema, and montage – quick, abrupt, assertive editing – breaks up its flow: ‘In Eisenstein’s films individual shots do not possess the truth of time. The shots themselves are absolutely static and anaemic.’ He particularly objected to the famous battle on the ice in Alexander Nevsky (1938) because the quick cutting ‘contradicts the inner rhythm of the scene . . . It is just as if one poured out Niagara Falls glass by glass. Instead of Niagara, you’d get a puddle.’ Tarkovsky preferred long takes, in which rhythm and duration were intrinsic, not imposed in the cutting room. ‘I reject the principles of “montage cinema” because they do not allow the film to continue beyond the edges of the screen,’ he declared. But, Bird argues, he was actually renewing rather than renouncing montage: ‘His polemic with Eisenstein essentially boils down to the claim that montage can be applied to blocks of longer duration than Eisenstein allowed for.’ One example of Tarkovsky’s montage was brought up by Sartre in a public letter about Ivan’s Childhood (included in Dunne’s collection): the bold jump at the film’s climax from fiction to documentary, from prolonged anticipation to sudden aftermath, from ‘the time of war in all its unbearable slowness’ to newsreel footage of the Soviet entry into Berlin, where we find out that the boy protagonist, whom we last saw crossing a river at night and venturing into enemy territory, has been captured by the Germans and hanged. Defending Tarkovsky’s first film against the criticism of some European leftists, Sartre remarked that audiences in the West were able to appreciate both Godard’s briskness and Antonioni’s deliberate pace, but were not used to the way this young Soviet director combined the swift and the slow, the elliptical and the drawn out.

Solaris begins in a Russian dacha built in the traditional style by the protagonist’s father, who dislikes innovation. The protagonist is a scientist, Kris Kelvin, who has come to say goodbye to his father before travelling the next day to the distant planet Solaris to investigate strange things that have been happening there. Also at the dacha is a friend of his father’s, Berton, a former astronaut who has been to Solaris and witnessed the strange happenings, but whose report Kris dismisses as unreliable. Berton leaves, angry, and the film goes with him along the highways and through the tunnels of a big city. An extended, arresting digression, this car ride, now in black and white, now in colour, now in ghostly back projection behind Berton and his son, now at a different time of day, is another example of Tarkovsky’s style of montage. The unnamed city of the future is Tokyo, and we are watching documentary film of its actual traffic, vertiginous yet steady, fantastic yet familiar. Riding in a car that seems to drive itself, Berton and his son could be in a space capsule; the city lights in the evening look like swirling stars. The passage suggests travel in outer space by depicting the space in which we live and the frightening speed at which we move through it. One thinks of Godard’s Alphaville (1965), where the galactic capital of a dystopian future is manifestly contemporary Paris. But while Godard playfully reproves a technological future already here, Tarkovsky anxiously contemplates our rush into a future that is forever getting away from us. This ‘seemingly endless and repetitive journey through tunnels’, Vladimir Golstein writes in Dunne’s volume, ‘is not so much a condemnation of technology’ as ‘a search for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel’. Yes, but the light appears at the end of each tunnel only for us to enter another one, and another, and another.

Tarkovsky found fault with Eisenstein, but felt a deep kinship with a Soviet filmmaker of the same generation, Alexander Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko was a revolutionary rooted in tradition, a collectivist attentive to the individual, a poetic filmmaker who did not treat the image merely as an element of montage but as a piece of reality with its own force and resonance. It’s not just a matter of duration, of short shots or long takes: ‘Rhythm is determined not by the length of the edited pieces,’ Tarkovsky wrote, ‘but by the pressure of the time that runs through them.’ Like Tarkovsky’s ‘sculpting in time’, Dovzhenko’s editing pays close heed to tempo, speeding up and slowing down in concert with the varied pulse and pace of the things depicted. At certain moments in his films people stand still but time does not: time visibly runs through an immobile gesture, a static but not frozen posture, an enduring state of being. Even the dead hero of Earth (1930), killed in the prime of youth, carried to his grave and caressed by apples hanging from a tree under which he passes, represents cyclical time in its movement from death to life continuing. The funeral sequence in Earth is a sustained montage of living responses to the hero’s death: sorrowful, regretful, hopeful responses, some turned towards the past, some towards the future, some towards both at once, each distinct yet all linked together in the editing like different parts in intricate contrapuntal music.

When I first saw Mirror I had trouble following it, but I was sure I was watching something great. Later I learned that Tarkovsky had trouble editing it:

At moments it looked as if the film could not be edited . . . it fell apart as one watched, it had no unity, no necessary inner connection, no logic. And then, one fine day, when we somehow managed to devise one last, desperate rearrangement – there was the film. The material came to life; the parts started to function reciprocally . . . the film was born before our very eyes. For a long time I still couldn’t believe the miracle – the film held together.

That’s just how I felt: there was the film, maybe beyond my grasp yet holding me in its grip, unfolding before my eyes with remarkable conviction, the diverse strands pulled together in a miracle of montage.

Mirror originated in Tarkovsky’s memories of childhood, but isn’t a simple memoir. He planned to alternate between dramatisations of episodes from his childhood and an interview with his mother, ‘thus juxtaposing’, as he said, ‘two comparative perceptions of the past (mother’s and narrator’s)’. But he gave up that idea because the clash of interview and dramatic enactment ‘would have been a formalistic, intellectual exercise in editing . . . like a game of ping-pong’. Tarkovsky’s way of cutting, unlike Eisenstein’s but like Dovzhenko’s, tends to connect rather than to divide. The film he made in the end dramatises the mother’s as well as the narrator’s memories; instead of keeping them apart, it weaves them together. Remembrance of things past is, in Mirror, a joint undertaking.

This narrator, as Tarkovsky calls him, doesn’t do much voice-over narration. And except as a boy in his and his mother’s memories, he comes into view only once, when he seems to be dying near the end. We never get to see his face. But we sense his presence behind the camera throughout in a way that identifies him with the director. Tarkovsky means him to be a visual, rather than a verbal narrator, a consciousness governing the camera’s account of things. When the luminous Terekhova glances at the camera, the mother looks at the son, the actress at the director. Like other practitioners of the long take – Mizoguchi, Max Ophuls, Antonioni – Tarkovsky is the kind of director who makes his presence felt behind the camera, and so it is with the unseen, rarely heard, yet consistently sensed protagonist he calls the narrator, his surrogate in the film, his reflection in the mirror.

More often than the narrator’s voice-over we hear the director’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky, reciting his own poems. ‘There’s no such thing as death./Everyone’s immortal. Everything. Do not/Be afraid of death at seventeen years old/Or at seventy’: Tarkovsky’s father speaks these lines over documentary images of Soviet soldiers crossing Lake Sivash in the Crimea in 1943, when the advancing Red Army was turning back the German invasion and beginning to win the war. The poem sings of immortality, and these soldiers live on the screen and in memory; but few of them survived, and Tarkovsky learned that the man who filmed them was killed the same day. He tells us that he was stunned to discover this war footage taking us into the time of a ‘single event continuously observed’ and bearing witness to ‘the fearful, inhuman effort of that tragic moment of history’. He immediately ‘knew that this episode had to become the centre, the very essence, heart, nerve of this picture that had started off merely as my intimate lyrical memories’. His most personal film became also one of his most historical.

Although he found the interview with his mother unsuitable, he did insert into Mirror several passages of a different kind of documentary: the newsreel. We cut to the crossing of Lake Sivash from dramatisations of the narrator’s memories of military school during the war (when he was the same age as Ivan in Ivan’s Childhood). From a group of Spanish refugees settled in Russia we cut to newsreel images of the Spanish Civil War, bombs being dropped, civilians running in the street, children being evacuated, a little girl holding her doll and turning her eyes towards the camera with a bewildered look – at which point we cut, as if following her gaze, to footage of a pioneering Soviet balloon that flew into the stratosphere in 1934. What’s the connection here? Are we to see devastation and aspiration, bombs falling from the sky and a balloon rising into it, as two sides of the same coin? Or merely to recognise that we are as bewildered by the ups and downs of history as that little girl in Spain? The meaning may be uncertain, but the succession of images is fluent, compelling, incontestable. No fiction film since Buñuel’s L’Age d’or (1930) incorporates documentary footage so astoundingly and so deftly. One could say that Tarkovsky has made the bits of newsreel in Mirror part of his mind. But these images are not personal: they are held in common, a record of the past in the minds of many. Better to say that his own images, his and his mother’s memories, have been made part of a collective recollection.

After Mirror something changed. When he was working on Stalker, Tarkovsky declared his new-found allegiance to ‘the unity of time, place and action according to the principles of the classics’. He would no longer broaden and complicate the picture with ‘the technique of assembling’ – that is, montage. Now he wanted things bound together tightly; he had ‘no desire to divert or surprise the viewer with changes in location, scenery or narrative manoeuvre’. He grew critical of his earlier work: ‘Even the structure of Andrei Rublev strikes me today as disjointed and incoherent.’ His collaborator on the script of that film, Andrei Konchalovsky, is cited in Synessios’s article as saying that Tarkovsky ‘began building with wood and ended up building with marble’. Like Konchalovsky and Synessios, I prefer Tarkovsky’s wood to his marble, the wood of his montage to the marble of his classicism, the assembled diversity of Mirror or Andrei Rublev to the concentrated unity of Stalker or his two subsequent, foreign-made movies.

Andrei Rublev is a portrait of the artist as a multiple figure. It begins with a peasant who ‘escapes superstitious villagers’, as Bird writes, ‘and launches into flight on a home-stitched balloon, only to crash into a riverbank’. This prologue, depicting an event unlikely to have occurred in Rublev’s time, the late Middle Ages, was derived from the legend of the first human flight, supposed to have taken place in a Russian town in 1731 (and much-commemorated after the Sputnik launch). The aerial travelling shots associate the flying balloon with the movie camera, two machines unknown in the medieval world, as if to announce at the outset that this picture of a historical moment, as Tarkovsky said while at work on the script, is to be watched with the eyes of today. The peasant inventor who defies received ideas and takes off in his own contraption is the film’s first figure of the artist, and the one most identified with the art of film. But after a spell in the air, the balloon comes crashing down to earth.

The next artist in the film is a jester who entertains peasants with a bawdy song and dance routine mocking the aristocracy. Three monks come in from the rain and watch his act; one of them, Kirill, as we suspect but don’t find out for sure until much later, denounces him to the authorities. Mounted guards arrive and seize the jester; they bash his face against a tree and break his tambourine before carrying him away. Another of the monks – they are icon painters on their way to Moscow – is Rublev, though we don’t know it yet. In Moscow, Kirill goes to see a master painter, Theophanes the Greek, whose house adjoins a public square where a man is being tortured before his execution. In this world art and violence are never far apart. Theophanes needs an assistant, and Kirill offers to work for nothing if Theophanes comes to the monastery and asks him to in front of everyone. But instead Theophanes sends for Andrei Rublev, who only now, more than half an hour into the movie, is identified to us. Tarkovsky gives the character no precedence over the environment, the palpably rendered social and material situation in which he lives and paints. In this portrait of the artist, Rublev shares the stage with his fellow monks, the envious, volatile Kirill and the talented, steady Daniil, with Theophanes the old master and Foma the apprentice, with the balloonist and the jester in the opening episodes and the young bell-maker Boriska in the concluding one. Tarkovsky admired Carpaccio’s ability to paint crowded compositions in which each figure is treated as a central character.

What Sartre said about Ivan’s Childhood applies even more to Andrei Rublev: both drawn out and elliptical, it will stay with things, allow them to take their time, then shift to something else, without accounting for the time between. This crowded composition is broken up into extended fragments; the continuously observed vies with the discontinuously skipped. Long as it is – ‘an impossibly long film’, Solzhenitsyn complained, ‘filled with extra episodes which have no bearing on the main story’ – Andrei Rublev leaves so many gaps unfilled that one could equally complain that it is too short. If the ‘extra episodes’ were omitted, there would be little left: the digressions are the point.

How is art to embody the spiritual in a material world? How can it serve brutal patrons like the prince, who has stonemasons blinded because they have agreed to work for a rival prince, his younger twin brother? Andrei Rublev, the artist as thinker, is troubled by such questions. He discusses them in a wood with Theophanes, while his pupil Foma, a man of the senses, perceptive but no thinker, lifts a dead bird’s white wing; we cut to a reprise of the bird’s-eye view in the prologue, the camera flying over the land, the sky reflected in the water below. White paint spills into a dark pool after the blinding of the masons; dark paint is then thrown onto a white wall. On that wall Rublev and Daniil are to paint a fresco of the Last Judgment, which Rublev has delayed because he doesn’t want to scare people. A mute young woman enters the church, a holy fool, and the stain on the wall makes her cry. After the fresco is done, Tatars in league with the younger prince attack the city; amid the violence that ensues, Rublev grabs an axe and kills a man who is about to rape the holy fool. Rublev gives up painting and takes a vow of silence. He wants to protect the holy fool but cannot keep her from going off with a Tatar leader who takes her as one of his wives.

Years pass. A bell is to be cast by order of the prince. But no bell-maker can be found: three have died of the plague, one is dying, and another has been driven away by the Tatars. Only a teenage boy remains, Boriska, a bell-maker’s son who says that his father taught him the secrets of bell-casting. Boriska’s story, with Rublev as onlooker, is the film’s final episode. The boy is put in charge, and he is tireless in his work, seeming to know what he wants and going out on a limb to get it, making demands of his workers and also of the prince, whose silver he requires in large quantities for the casting. The prince who blinded the masons – and who beheaded his twin brother, as we learn at the bell’s unveiling from two visiting dignitaries chatting in Italian – will surely not spare Boriska if the bell doesn’t ring. But it does ring, triumphantly, and at that moment the holy fool returns. The Italians sneer at the primitivism of Russia, but they do admire a beautiful girl who turns out to be the holy fool’s daughter with the Tatar. Looking for all the world like a highborn lady, the holy fool glances towards us and smiles.

On that glance we cut to a dejected Boriska. He reacts to his achievement by breaking down and crying. His father, he confesses to Rublev, passed on to him no secret. The boy was winging it. What the old man knew about bell-making he took to his grave. The boy was following his instincts wherever they led him, making it up as he went along. He is the artist as pretender, as improviser, as risk-taker, the artist as fraud who rises to the occasion and invents a tradition rather than resting on one. Rublev starts speaking again and is ready to start painting. He invites the boy to join him, to cast bells as he paints icons. Why does he now return to his art? Not only because he sees in the boy something of himself, but also because he recognises that human endeavour can be a throw of the dice, a splashing of paint on the wall; that one must do what one can and accept that the outcome is out of one’s hands, for God works in mysterious ways. That’s where the holy fool comes in. Who would have known that the woman he tried to save and thought irretrievably lost to the barbarians would end up doing so well? She and her daughter go by in the distance, and Rublev exchanges glances with her. How can he renounce his gift for painting if his icons may resonate like Boriska’s bell, if they might do as well in this unpredictable world as the holy fool? Switching from black and white into colour, the film closes with Andrei Rublev’s icons. Some critics have attempted to distinguish his genius from the presumably lesser talent of the film’s other artist figures. They miss the point. Art does not live by genius alone.

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Vol. 31 No. 6 · 26 March 2009

Gilberto Perez is mistaken in thinking that Tarkovsky spelled ‘Nostalghia’ with an ‘h’ in order to gesture to the specifically Russian character of the emotion (LRB, 26 February). First, there is no ‘h’ in the Cyrillic alphabet; it’s there because he wanted to spell it the Italian way, to reflect the fact that he made the film in Italy. Second, the Russian word nostal’giia is perfectly translatable into other languages, because it was borrowed from them in the first place. The distinctively Russian emotion Tarkovsky might have chosen instead would be toska, which Nabokov defined as ‘a feeling of physical or metaphysical dissatisfaction, a sense of longing, a dull anguish, a preying misery, a gnawing mental ache’. Not to be confused with Tosca.

Tony Wood
London NW5

Vol. 31 No. 7 · 9 April 2009

Tony Wood’s phrasing might give some readers the impression that he thinks the Italian word for ‘nostalgia’ is nostalghia (Letters, 26 March). Of course, it isn’t: it’s nostalgia. The spelling of the title of Tarkovsky’s movie Nostalghia is an approximation of the Russian pronunciation using Italian orthography.

John Merriweather

Wasn’t Tarkovsky’s insertion of the ‘h’ – reminiscent of the aching sound ‘ah’, ‘oh’, used in many languages to denote the sense of longing for things/places past – intended simply as the graphic rendering of an absence?

Alfio Bernabei
London NW3

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