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Film

The Soviet filmmaker's guide to 'Ideology'

TIFF's showcase of the works of director Andrei Tarkovsky elevates his films' quiet, dignified optimism, in their way of illustrating a way of living, working and thinking under the veil of authoritarianism

A scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, one of many films directed by the Soviet filmmaker included in the TIFF retrospective: The Poetry of Apocalypse: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

In 1945, Isaiah Berlin, the Russian-British philosopher, returned from a sojourn in the Soviet Union, whereupon he produced the modestly titled, enormously insightful memorandum, A Note on Literature and the Arts in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in the Closing Months of 1945.

"There is little fight left even in the most rebellious and individualistic," Berlin wrote. "Soviet reality is too recalcitrant, political obligation too oppressive, moral issues too uncertain, and the compensations, material and moral, for conformity too irresistible." What Berlin is describing is Ideology, not in the particular sense (i.e. the ideology of the USSR) but in the grander, philosophical sense: a set of self-enforcing arbitrations naturalized as norms. Where ideology strikes through offending sentences with a red pen, Ideology precludes those sentences from ever being written in the first place. Capital-i Ideology marks the limits of the imagination itself.

This proscription of belief is central to Stalker, Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's slow-moving sci-fi masterpiece. In Stalker, a man of science and a man of letters are led by a world-weary guide (the titular "Stalker") through a post-apocalyptic wasteland to a vaguely supernatural Eden called The Zone. There, the legend goes, visitors will be able to manifest their deepest wishes. Problem is: nobody knows what to wish for. Even against the miserable, sepia-tinted blahs of Stalker's backdrop, it becomes impossible to conceive of an alternative.

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TIFF Cinematheque's newly mounted retrospective, The Poetry of Apocalypse: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, is the major event of the year's cultural calendar in Toronto. What's interesting in the contemporary moment is not so much the trumped-up apocalypticism of his films – which, as the title of TIFF's retrospective suggests, feel hazily relevant in a world of environmental disaster, global terrorism and rumblings of nuclear war – but the way in which Tarkovsky's cinema, like his life as an artist, articulate the crippling delimitation of the political imagination Berlin was describing way back in 1945.

Tarkovsky's relationship to the official regime of Soviet censorship is illustrative, and weirdly paradoxical. His movies are famously ambiguous and poetic, possessing zero relationship to the state-sponsored mandate of "Soviet realist" art that depicted the triumph of class struggle and the emancipatory glories of communism. That Tarkovsky's films exist at all seems to give the lie to the stringency of Soviet censorship. If the scowling government bureaucrats were such sticklers, what accounts for such challenging, ostensibly un-official Soviet films? Answering that requires a rethinking of the role of censorship, and forces us to reckon with the possibility that Tarkovsky's films are so good precisely because of the oppressive regimes from which they emerged.

In Stalker, a man of science and a man of letters are led by a world-weary guide (the titular ‘Stalker’) through a post-apocalyptic wasteland to a vaguely supernatural Eden called The Zone. There, the legend goes, visitors will be able to manifest their deepest wishes.

Take his 1962 debut, the Second World War drama Ivan's Childhood. The film emerged from the slackening in censoring wartime myths, following from Nikita Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin's bungling of the war. The film's hero is a 12-year-old boy enlisted by the Red Army to perform dangerous reconnaissance missions. Yet Ivan is not driven by his rousing belief in the historical rectitude of the Soviet cause. His sole motive is revenge against the Nazis who killed his parents. Tarkovsky exploited the relative freedom afforded filmmakers during de-Stalinization to make a film that radically undermined the presumed morality of war and the innocence of youth. The film won global accolades and festival prizes. Khrushchev, it was reported, was not pleased.

Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky's 1966 follow-up, faced more direct challenges. A three-hour historical epic about a medieval icon painter, the film opens with a one-two punch delivered against the Soviet authorities. In the film's prologue, a shaggy inventor straps himself into a primitive hot air balloon and, despite the intervention of an angry mob, proceeds to fly above the countryside – an image of the artist as a radical, defying convention, literally soaring above society. Shortly after, a vulgar jester is assaulted by a group of soldiers – an image of the artist oppressed by state authority. Soviet officials rebuffed a 1967 invitation to the Cannes Film Festival, claiming Rublev was not complete (a lie). They relented two years later, screening the film out-of-competition at 4 a.m. It went on to win the top critics' prize.

Solaris, often cited as among the best science-fiction pictures of all time, emerged in its own way from official Soviet policy. During the height of the Cold War, Tarkovsky was compelled to make what he viewed as a response to Stanley Kubrick's massively popular 2001: A Space Odyssey. The idea of an official, government-produced Soviet response to America's homemade sci-fi epic condenses something of the ludicrous ideological tensions of the Cold War (and the space race specifically), albeit ironically. Where technology in 2001 drives the evolutionary potential of humanity, the gizmos and gadgets of Solaris only further alienate human beings from each other, and from a deeper spiritual authenticity. It was a strike against what Tarkovsky called the "exoticism of technology." Hilariously, the Soviet Union's epic sci-fi blockbuster blow-back against the West indulges all manner of self-recriminating tropes of Soviet melancholy and de-individualization.

If Solaris was a sly, ironic attempt to satisfy Soviet authorities, 1975's The Mirror served only to baffle them. The film – which is a highlight of TIFF's retrospective, given the relative difficulty of securing a watchable copy on home video – unfolds as a free flow of memories and ideas gushing from the mind of a dying poet. While some censors praised its inventiveness and poetic brilliance, others sneered at its opaqueness and pretension (a pose common among Tarkovsky-skeptics). Critics, likewise, were split. Despite receiving a severely limited release at the time, The Mirror remains a stunning accomplishment, which, in its ethereal beauty, nimbly wove through the dragnet of government authority.

Tarkovsky's final features, 1983's Nostalghia and 1988's The Sacrifice, were both filmed outside of Russia. The move might suggest a period of unfettered artistic freedom. But his post-Soviet features reveal the crucial role censorship and oppression played in shaping his work. In Nostalghia, a Russian poet finds himself adrift in Italy, depressed and fed up with beauty. He finds himself pining for his home, and unable to connect with anyone around him. He develops a consuming interest in a local madman who is obsessed with the end of the world. Where the poet is adrift, locked in a state of national and spiritual exile, the madman possesses a clarity of purpose. Famously, Soviet higher-ups appointed national cinema figurehead Sergei Bondarchuk to a jury at Cannes to prevent the film from taking the Palme d'Or.

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During the height of the Cold War, Tarkovsky was compelled to make what he viewed as a response to Stanley Kubrick’s massively popular 2001: A Space Odyssey. Solaris is the result.

Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice, was made in Sweden, and plays as a kind of Greatest Hits of the director's filmography, mashing up his interest in the end of the world (Stalker, Nostalghia), ponderous intellectualism (Solaris), and the possibility of Christian redemption in a world given to secularism and heathenry (Andrei Rublev).

While these latter films are eminently watchable, they veer dangerously close to self-parody, their imagery and ideas lacking the rigour of earlier masterpieces. In Nostalghia, the poet's Italian translator lobs a particularly barbed accusation at him: "You talk about freedom. But when you get it, you don't know what to do with it." The same may be said of Tarkovsky in exile.

Taken together, Tarkovsky's filmography provides a useful lesson in artistry, showing that it is preferable to colour outside the lines than to not have any lines at all. There is a great moment in Andrei Rublev when, flummoxed and frustrated, the titular painter splashes black paint against the white walls of a monastery, resulting in a Pollockian expressionist smear. He is immediately distressed. Unlike his imposing religious artworks, designed to inspired and ease the pain of life, Rublev's angry splatter has no context, and no audience. It is illegible.

Taken together, Tarkovsky’s filmography provides a useful lesson in artistry, showing that it is preferable to colour outside the lines than to not have any lines at all.

The same dynamic is at play in the latter Andrei's work. Tarkovsky's best, most affecting, films address that fundamental question of Stalker: How do we pierce the veil of Ideology so that we can even know, deep down, what we want? For Tarkovsky, the answer is typically opaque. What's clear is his eagerness – and indeed his need – to articulate the yearning for that desire. His best films deal with alternatives: to the hand-me-down stories of Red Army valour (Ivan's Childhood), to the extinction of spiritual life (Andrei Rublev), to the constraints of the sci-fi genre (Solaris, Stalker) and to rigid formal classicism of cinema itself (The Mirror, Nostalghia).

His career also suggests a quiet, dignified optimism, in its illustration of a way of living, working, thinking, and feeling that resists the invisible, irresistible, all-encompassing comfort of capital-i Ideology. Against the apocalyptic gloom of the present, such optimism may seem naive, even tragic. But then Tarkovsky's is a cinema full of holy fools.

The Poetry of Apocalypse: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky runs through Nov. 26 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).

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