Alexander Sokurov's "Moscow Elegy" is a poetic, experimental documentary by the country's greatest living director on Russia's most important postwar filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986).
Sokurov is a formalist, an artist whose rigorous, severe and often staggeringly beautiful work is grounded in references to painting, literature and music. Unlike an earlier documentary made on the life and work of the Russian director -- the conventional, prosaic "Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky" -- Sokurov's "Moscow Elegy" achieves a spellbinding, haunting quality.
Tarkovsky was the son of a prominent Russian poet, Arseniy Tarkovsky, and he was also Sokurov's friend and mentor who helped Sokurov with his first job at Lenfilm Studios. After Tarkovsky's death, Sokurov was commissioned by the Professional Union of Cinematographers to produce a documentary portrait of him. Sokurov proved as intransigent and uncompromising as his late friend, and this film was withheld from circulation for more than a decade.
Tarkovsky ("Andrei Rublev," "Stalker") made enigmatic, haunting, devastating movies. (Steven Soderbergh is currently remaking his 1972 masterpiece, "Solaris.") "Moscow Elegy" underlines Sokurov's profound affinity with the late director's films in the densely layered images, sounds and camera placement. We see Tarkovsky in fragments and bursts of imagery, though the movie offers little in the standard grammar of documentaries. "Moscow Elegy" is far more attuned to mood, Tarkovsky's personal meaning to Sokurov, and his significance in the greater Russian culture.
"Moscow Elegy" is defined by absence--Tarkovsky, the man and artist, was harassed by state authorities producing long stretches of inactivity, allowing for only seven movies in more than 26 years. The movie also mourns a national cinema that has never recovered from his forced exile and tragic death. "Moscow Elegy" is structured as an inquiry into the man, what film meant to him, and the profound loss in his work when he was forced by political and economic complications to live his final years in the West.
There is an extraordinary scene where Sokurov displays Tarkovsky's passport photos doubled up, as if copied in a split screen, followed moments later by Tarkovsky passing through a door, in what was the final time (March 1982) that Tarkovsky would ever inhabit his native country.
"Moscow Elegy" is fraught with images of loss. The most astounding image of the film is an extended tracking shot that moves through the dank, vacant house where Tarkovsky lived with his second wife and two sons. After extracts from Tarkovsky's most autobiographical film, "The Mirror," are interpolated with some of his father's own poetry, "Moscow Elegy" focuses on Tarkovsky's time spent in Italy making "Nostalgia," and on an isolated Swedish island where he created his final masterpiece, 1986's "The Sacrifice," despite suffering from advanced complications of lung cancer.
Tarkovsky conceives filmmaking in the manner of a novelist or painter. He is completely absorbed and drawn into its complexities, mysteries and wonder. Brilliantly shot in wintry, shimmering black-and-white, Sokurov draws on landscape, cloud formations and open fields, in opposition to the depraved, cold, sterile Moscow street locations. The film closes with the director in consultation with his technical collaborators, including the great cinematographer Sven Nykvst, in discussing the astounding climatic sequence of "The Sacrifice."
Andrei Tarkovsky was a supreme poet of the cinema. Alexander Sokurov is his aesthetic heir who brings the remarkable man and his work vividly back to elliptical though overwhelming life.
4 stars (out of 4)
Plays at 1 p.m. Sunday at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; 772-281-4114. In Russian, Italian, French and English; English subtitled.