TIFF presents work by one of cinema’s most unique voices

I remember the first Andrei Tarkovsky film I watched—Stalker—because I watched it with a fever in the middle of a snow-filled January. My apartment’s pipes had frozen and burst, sending my roommates and I into the homes of friends across the city. The film’s desolate setting felt like a reflection of my emotional state, but I was curiously underwhelmed. Stalker, like the rest of Tarkovsky’s filmography, often shows up on lists of the greatest films of all time, but nothing moved me. After the fever wore away, I started thinking about the film again, and after a couple of months, I still regularly returned to it—its images haunted me. When I finally revisited it earlier this year, I was mesmerized.

It turns out all of Tarkovsky’s films succeed in a similar fashion: their narratives are simple, their forms are controlled, and their dialogue constantly returns to the themes of religion, art, and nationhood. At first glance they’re unassuming, and at second glance they’re sprawling. The Russian filmmaker only made seven features in a career that spanned thirty years, but his impact is lasting: there’s hints of Tarkovsky in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan. But one of Tarkovsky’s greatest successes, and testaments to his artistry, is the self-sufficiency of his films. If most of the films stretch beyond conventional runtimes, they do so without demand. They seem to exist independent of an audience; watching them feels more like a dialogue than a one-way conversation. You can stay as long as you want, and take as much or as little as you like.

The Poetry of the Apocalypse: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky is the retrospective currently ongoing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Each feature, including Tarkovsky’s graduation project from his studies in film school, is playing for at least one night. His two science fiction films, Stalker and Solaris, are getting week-long theatrical runs. The subjects of Tarkovsky’s films range through Russian history, from the 1400s through World War II and into the near future. His last two features incorporate Italian and Swedish landscapes, but the characters are still Russian at heart. In all of his films, there’s the same self-sacrificial view of religion and art, and the same conservative approach to gender. Belief is paramount in any Tarkovsky film, the key to his dour humanism. As a body of work, Tarkovsky’s oeuvre makes a case for film as art (if such a case still needs to be made). His films are intimately personal, more reflective of his own biography than any kind of Russian identity, and were often nearly made under his complete control. To be able to see his work as a collection is a rare opportunity; the films only grow next to one another.

These are my favourites, but all of Tarkovsky’s films are complete enough, and distinct enough, to be worth your time:

Tarkovsky’s historical epic, Andrei Rublev, follows the titular icon painter through the early 15th century as he struggles with his artistic faith and with the political ramifications of the Tatar invasions. Played by the then-unknown Anatoly Solonitsyn (who would become a Tarkovsky regular), Rublev wanders through the countryside, witnessing pagan celebrations, the seizure of a city, and the casting of a bell. If you can sit through the lengthy runtime, Andrei Rublev is the ideal introduction to Tarkovsky—the poetic interludes are brief, and the style serves the plot, before any formal experimentation or lyrical asides.

Stalker, Tarkovsky’s more subtle science fiction film, strips away the conventions of the genre to create an apocalyptic voyage film. The opening title card recounts the appearance of an unexplainable “Zone” in the Russian countryside, guarded by the military. The Stalker, a devout of the “Zone,” leads two men, a Writer and a Professor, into the “Zone” in hopes of arriving at its centre: the “Room,” which grants their deepest wish. The cinematography is lush, green, and decaying, and the film’s form plays subtle tricks with time. Belief in the “Room” and in society becomes both motivator and antagonist. Stalker is a meditation through dialogue. It’s Tarkovsky’s most text-heavy film, citing literature, philosophy, and even his father’s poems, through the characters’ dialogue.

In 1984, Tarkovsky announced his self-imposed exile from Russia, hoping to gain creative freedom abroad. The year prior, he made one of his last features, Nostalghia. A Russian poet travels to Italy to research an 18th century Russian composer, but spends most of the film lost in memories of his home. The present is shot in colour while the poet’s memories are shot in black and white. Nostalghia shows Tarkovsky’s ability to make films with a near absence of plot—what happens, beyond the poet wandering through a hotel, is difficult to summarize. But the film’s structure takes on an integral role in the story, elucidating the themes of state-identity, faith, and artistry that were previously limited to dialogue or image. Nostalghia shows Tarkovsky taking control of camera, sound, and form—it’s a piece of art using every advantage of its medium.

The Poetry of the Apocalypse runs until November 30th. A full schedule of films can be found on TIFF’s website.