Sculpting in Time: REFLECTIONS ON THE CINEMA by Andrey Tarkovsky; translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair (Knopf: $19.95; 240 pp., illustrated)

Robinson is the author of "Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography" (Viking Press), and a frequent visitor to the Soviet Union.

My first encounter with Andrey Tarkovsky took place some years ago in the homely "Red October Cinema," hidden away in one of the sprawling, faceless apartment complexes that ring Moscow. The seats were hard, and a late-November chill penetrated the Spartan auditorium, but no one in the enraptured capacity audience seemed to mind.

On the screen was "Andrey Rublyov," Tarkovsky's mystical, compelling and ugly biography of the great medieval Russian icon painter, who died around 1430. But "biography" cannot begin to convey the scope and depth of this disturbing account of one artist's struggle to find beauty and spiritual meaning in the midst of a violent and mercenary world: Russia suffering under the Tartar yoke. Narrated with excrutiating deliberation, embodied in images so haunting and ascetic as to seem like icons in motion, "Andrey Rublyov" sent me reeling out into a snowy Moscow night with a new sense of Russia's difficult past--and present.

By the time Tarkovsky died of cancer last December at age 54 in Paris, an uncomfortable exile, he had completed only seven other films: "The Steamroller and the Violin" (1960), "The Childhood of Ivan" (1962), "Solaris" (1972), "The Mirror" (1974), "Stalker" (1979), "Nostalgia" (1983) and "The Sacrifice" (1986). Tarkovsky's oeuvre may have been small, but it earned him an undisputed place as one of the most revered film directors of his generation.

But like so many other Russian artistic giants of this century, including the writers Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Tarkovsky received better treatment abroad than at home. "Andrey Rublyov," completed in 1966, was shown at Cannes several years before it was released publicly (and even then, in a limited number of theaters) in the U.S.S.R.; Soviet censors found the portrayal of Rublyov too vacillating and "Hamlet-like." "The Mirror," a complex vision of the director's childhood, and "Stalker," a brilliant anti-utopian odyssey, were also criticized as "elitist" and inaccessible. Despite his international reputation, it became increasingly difficult for Tarkovsky to receive approval for his projects--which explains why he completed so few films.

In early 1983, he was allowed to go to Italy to work on a joint Italian-Soviet production, "Nostalgia." About a Russian poet's inability to adjust to life outside his homeland, it was a story very close to his heart. Aware that he would probably be unable to work if he returned to Moscow, Tarkovsky reluctantly requested political asylum in Italy in July, 1984. "The Soviet authorities left me no other choice," he said. By then, however, his health was rapidly deteriorating, and he managed to finish only one more film, "The Sacrifice," shot in Sweden. Sadly, he did not live to see glasnost, and the new version of "Hamlet" he had been talking about never got beyond the discussion phase.

"Sculpting in Time" will disappoint those looking for juicy tidbits concerning Tarkovsky's difficult relations with the Soviet government. Nor does it tell us much about Tarkovsky's childhood, education, friendships or personal life. Instead, it concentrates on the same sort of "burning issues" (bolnye voprosy) about spirituality, art and the human condition that tormented Tarkovsky's literary gurus: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Put together from "pieces of chapters," notes in diary form, lectures, discussions with the critic Olga Surkova; interspersed with stills from his films; and loaded with quotations from the most diverse sources, including the Bible and the poems of his father, Arseniy Tarkovsky, this provocative collage of ruminations soars far above the tawdry world of politics and the petty details of daily life.

Like his films, "Sculpting in Time" moves slowly and impressionistically, in a sort of poetic free-association, wandering from topic to topic. (Although I did not have access to the original Russian text for purposes of comparison, Kitty Hunter-Blair's translation of Tarkovsky's opaque prose reads smoothly and evocatively.) Many of Tarkovsky's insights give pause. "Today artists want instantaneous and total recognition--immediate payment for something that takes place in the realm of the spirit." Or: "Art is realistic when it strives to express an ethical ideal."

Tarkovsky's discomfort with the pervasive commercialism of Western culture, which he regards as no less pernicious than the ideological constraints placed on Soviet artists, echoes the sentiments of many other Russian emigres, including Solzhenitsyn. It's difficult to imagine Tarkovsky cutting deals over lunch at "La Maison."

If "Sculpting in Time" could be distilled to a single message, it would be this: Content and conscience must come before technique--for any artist in any art form. In all his films, Tarkovsky explains, he proceeded from faith and revelation; they led him to images and finally to what would appear on screen. For him, film making had to be an exhausting and often painful process of self-discovery, a relentless pursuit of moral truth and haiku-like simplicity, a beautiful ordeal from which the ultimate audience was inevitably and totally excluded.

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