Andrei Tarkovsky reconsidered in LACMA retrospective

According to the sacraments of global cinema, the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky was a kind of latter-day saint of the big screen. Exiled from his homeland, monastically devoted to his craft, he was often misunderstood by audiences baffled by his glacial panning shots and soulful effusions. His films were more exalted than actually seen, more slavishly imitated than truly assimilated.

Susan Sontag cited him as a favorite filmmaker. George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh toasted his spirit with their 2002 remake of his 1972 "Solaris," itself a homage to "2001: A Space Odyssey." Viggo Mortensen reportedly studied Tarkovsky’s rapturously austere films to play a questing survivor in "The Road."

But such high-minded worship can be smothering. Some of Tarkovsky's fervent admirers insisted that his films stay wrapped in a protective cloak of obscurity rather than analyzed for, say, their chauvinistic attitudes toward women or their cryptic allusions to the Soviet state, which banished him and repressed his work.

Yet a funny thing happened to Tarkovsky on his way to canonization. In the nearly quarter-century since the director's death of cancer at 54, Tarkovsky's films, as well as his life, have undergone a gradual reassessment through a slew of retrospective screenings, symposiums and reams of scholarly prose.

Without diminishing his stature as a visual poet, whose painterly imagery induces states of ecstatic wonderment even without benefit of 3-D glasses or digital avatars, Tarkovsky has been restored to the realm of the fully human.

"I think there has been this salutary trend away from treating him as this irreproachable holy man of the cinema and to look at the films in a new light," said James Quandt, senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. "As with [Robert] Bresson, they're seen as the two great spiritualist filmmakers of postwar cinema. Both of them, I think, suffered greatly by a kind of over-reverent approach to their work."

Local audiences can participate in that reappraisal tonight when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art launches "The Apocalyptic Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky." The series, through Feb. 5, will include screenings of his seven feature films, plus a revealing new documentary, "Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky," by L.A.-based director Dmitry Trakovsky.

Trakovsky, 24, who was born the year after Tarkovsky's death, and whose parents emigrated from Russia when he was 3, said that his posthumous search for the master's legacy turned into a personal voyage of discovery.

He tracked Tarkovsky first to Italy and Sweden, where he had shot his final films, "Nostalghia" (1983) and "The Sacrifice" (1986), then to Moscow. Along the way, the young documentarian interviewed Tarkovsky's son as well as several foreign actors and crew members who had worked with him.

To a person, they speak of the director in awed, if not necessarily affectionate, tones, their eyes haunted with revelatory memories.

Swedish actor Erland Josephson, an Ingmar Bergman favorite who was in "The Sacrifice," says on camera: "I didn't get more religious than before" by working with Tarkovsky, "but I could understand much more the feelings of mysteries, secrets and riddles of life."

Quandt points to two elements of Tarkovsky's aesthetic as his most distinctive and influential: his evocative, pantheistic use of landscape; and the director's long takes, his method of "sculpting in time" with a camera. Their influence can be readily detected in the work of such contemporary filmmakers as Terrence Malick, Carlos Reygadas and Tarkovsky's younger compatriot Alexander Sokurov.

But what perhaps most sets Tarkovsky apart from Western filmmakers is his Russian Orthodox belief in self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of spirituality, a conviction that links him directly to such Russian proto-modernists as Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Although "his films are not dogmatic or evangelistic," Trakovsky said, it is Tarkovsky's concept of the individual trying to navigate a corrupt world, turning away from human passions in pursuit of divine transcendence, that most crystallizes the director's faith.

That ideal of "individual sacrifice and submission to a divine pattern" is "I think what Tarkovsky's films are often about," Trakovsky said.

Self-sacrifice and submission might not get a director very far in Hollywood. But as the head of the Moscow Tarkovsky Fund observes in "Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky," "Somebody has to be above the earthly."

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