Pilar Roqueñí C.

From man's vision to art's vision:
An analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky's filmographic work

Pilar Roqueñí is a Communications Science Student at the Universidad Anáhuac del Sur, Mexico. She is also a French teacher at the Universidad del Valle de México. This essay was the beginning of her bachelor thesis on Tarkovsky's work, which will be finished in late 2003.


Andrei Tarkovsky was born on April 4th 1932, near the district of Volga, Russia. He belongs to a new generation of post-war film-makers who, after the epic film-makers among which we can find Eiseinstein. He breaks with this kind of film-making to find a more personal version of expression in this art. Even though he lived most of the time in Moscow, the memories of his childhood in the country had an influence in some of his movies such as The Mirror.

He decided to study film-making in the VGIK where he worked under the direction of Mikhail Romm during a time in which producing several movies per year in Rusia was nearly utopian; however, he achieved to find the way through. In the documentary "Directed by Tarkovsky" his assistant affirmed that he was the only film-maker who always did what he wanted. His constant struggle against censorship and against the film-making academy, which didn't show any special predilection for his movies, as well as his reputation as a dark film-maker, hard to understand; his reject towards metaphor, his insistence in the interpretative capacity of the audience, his voluntary exile, and finally, his death of cancer after finishing filming his last movie, have made him a cinematographic myth.

This work is based on his complete filmography (except for The Leveller and The Violin), and it attempts to contain how, from the vision that the director developed about Man, his esthetic formal vision is issued as well as his metacinematographic reflection and his vision of art.

I. From man's vision

Of time

To go within Tarkovsky's film-making is to go, above all, within his vision of man, understood as his philosophic posture towards (human) reality; in fact, his film's foundations are rooted in this vision. They are the subjective expression of his moral and psychological reflection, but above all, his spiritual reflection about man's situation in time and man as a result of his time, of his mutual finibility, of the dualities that consume the human being, of his capacity to transcend and his calling to art.

"Time and its moral implication are a look towards the past... The time in which we have lived stays in our soul as an experience situated in time... which gains weight only in its compilation... In some way, the past is more real."  [1]

For Tarkovsky, the human being is undividable of his temporary existence. By temporary I don't mean that he possesses a beginning and an end, because, in fact, it's the contrary, it is precisely the experience of time which gives weight to existence, as if life got its reality from fulfilling itself as a temporary situation.

The nucleus of the director's concern about time comes from a bergsonian idea that he takes. Begson affirmed that there are two times, the external, the historical, the one from actual facts, dated, organized; and an internal time, apart from History, and much more real individually. This last is the one Tarkovsky works on. The coexistence, sometimes paradoxical of both times, as in The Mirror, puts the balance favorably disposed towards internal time as the most concrete way to pass. Man, situated within temporal reality is remitted to his internal time as the true forger of himself. In this matter, Solaris is presented as the definition of the intimate reality that conforms man essentially: it is not science of objectivity but subjectivity which defines us and separates us from the rest of nature: it is our past, our memory, the remorse that lies in us, fear, time and the realities that haunt us which refuse to surrender to objective time (like the "visitors" of the space station), and which make us human. Therefore, both times coexist in the director's image, and the changes from one to another are understandable in the idea of an internal time which relates to the external time by the involuntary association of ideas, by the involuntary memory.

Time gains importance when it is remembered because memory is the keeper of internal time, and personal experience — like the one Alexei has in The Mirror where, after having seen Leonardo's engravings, he perceives his reality in a different way- it parts from concrete, present, things, as in Proust's Search for Lost Time (it is understood why Tarkovsky wanted to film a version of these novels) to submerge in internal plural reality. This reality is the one which is named existence. To exist means, to Tarkovsky, to be in time and be time or even be infinite. Man's internal time absorbs all other times because it's infinite, infinite because it doesn't have a specific beginning nor a specific end and is not even measurable: How would you measure feelings? Time is for the director perception above all. And it's a unique and undividable reality projected universally in continuous regeneration, in the mirror of time, which is the one of man's greatest feelings such as love, maternity, faith, fear, or even dreams; it's those eternal bonds, true to the individual, it's the continuous regeneration of internal time. Therefore, existence is presented, in a hegelanian way, as a universal fact which happens every instant, and we can understand that if that is the true existence, then, yes, we never die. Eternity, important fact of Tarkovsky's esthetic, is understood as Iosha's "Deja vu" in The Mirror, or the one that suggests that the mother and the daughter in law are the same actress in a mirror of time, or that about the author creating science fiction to break the bonds of the "where" and "how", and turn them into an "always" and "doesn't matter where"; even in Andrei Rubliov, dates lose their importance before the internal development of the character (who is the one who is really dated and that's why we have big time spaces).

The most perfect example is that of Alexander in The Sacrifice, where internal time (the one of the dream) is the measurement of reality, and of man's depths and his spiritual relation with the world. Then we can understand what Andrei Tarkovsky says in one of his poems:

"I don't believe in thoughts, and premonitions don't frighten me... There is no death on Earth, everything is immortal/ Live in the house and the house shall prevail/. The future happens here and now."  [2]

To sculpt time is for Tarkovsky to sculpt man's bonds, to construct in a piece of time, which is the cinematographic film, an internal and real time; it is to capture that eternity in an image because "feelings themselves are ephemeral, the image is absolute." And it could have been the image or any form of art because, as I mentioned above, man has a calling to art as long as it is the mirror of all human feelings together, so much that the work of art has been completely separated from its author (as Alexander says in The Sacrifice) and is universally valid. "Culture belongs to humanity" [3]. Art, in Tarkovsky's work (in its internal vision and in its realization) is man in his greatest perfection, in his contact with the Absolute.

From the duality of Matter/Spirit and art as a spiritual salvation.

Tarkovsky's internal journey through his characters is not only an exposition of the multiplicity of times, it is not only an exploration of man's internal time. As the work of art his movies are, their content is deeply human and by this I mean that his message is a reflection about one or various spiritual problems which worry men, and his conclusion is valid for any human being: it is also a universal projection of the message. As it happens with most of the great artists, their work is the expression of a fundamental concern, it is an exploration of a subject and it can be said that all their works are the same single work or the same subject viewed from different perspectives.

"You have to simply see this movie... see it as you look at the stars or watch the sea, just as you admire a landscape, there is no mathematical logic here because it can't explain what man is or what his life's meaning is."  [4]

Man's internal world is understood as an internal journey in Tarkovsky. The best example is Solaris in which, in the age of space journeys, that is, the age of the macrocosm's exploration, the author turns back to the world that has been forsaken: the microcosms, the internal, unconscious world of the human being , his constitutive universe, and he confronts it with the world which was constructed mathematically and logically: the world of matter and science.

Tarkovsky affirms that man is not a specific being, he is not fundamentally a material being and his internal world does not respond to formal logic but to an internal logic, a personal and sentimental one. That is planet Solaris' symbolism, which scientists don't want to study anymore, it is the internal world that contains all: Chis' house, Alexei's memories, Alexander's transcendence, Andrei Rubliov's silent world and Ivan's dreams; the Zone itself and Santa Catarina's water in Nostalgia. It is the place where human knowledge's limits are marked just as Socrates' bust indicates in the space station [5], or as Tarkovsky says: "knowledge parts us from knowledge, the more we learn, the less we know, we go so far and deep that we loose the real world's vision" [6]. The intimate world, even contradictory or illogical (in the purest sense of the word) which governs some parts of his movies: like the house's burning in The Sacrifice, of Alexei's guilt in The Mirror, owe their creation to the author who doesn't worry about explaining what that world shows; he observes it but he doesn't study it, just as it is: without laws. As Alexander said in The Sacrifice: "the maps that we have are not the real ones", because they are not the maps of the human soul, those can not be outlined.

The characters are lonely because they are pushed away by science, but above all, by society, by that burden of socialization which concerns Alexander, in which the is no room for spirituality, as it is demonstrated in Domenico's sequence in the Capitol, or Stalker's feelings, the characters are lonely because nobody understands their spiritual worlds, and nobody listens to their transcendental search .

Then, there's violence, man as man's wolf, that which appears on Andrei Rubliov's screen but which we know true, that of the technological progress which keeps its power with violence [7] about which Tarkovsky affirms "man feels weakness towards any enemy, the worst is to be subject to human violence, human evilness is the worst of all" [8]. Lonely or mute, the vow of silence that some characters acquire is a pessimist vision of a man which is no longer capable of listening to anything. However, the director's position points to the other end: faith.

In that sense, Tarkovsky's filmography is a desperate search of spirituality, a novel-like journey through the light of hope and above all, faith, and I say faith because in none of his movies does that search reach a conclusion or an actual change. It is the hope to find a change which gives strength to his movies, it is that the farthest man goes from his sensible part, the bigger the contradiction or destruction is, the stronger faith persists in the characters: Domenico puts himself on fire to lighten the way, although nobody notices; Alexander puts his house on fire, Andrei Rubliov decides to continue painting icons, to continue imaging the divine even among a rotten world. Because the author marks the way, what must be repaired, though he doesn't insist that it has already been reformed: the route is that of collapsed churches, that of the tree which has to be greened again. Faith is showed as the supreme value because it is the most spiritual thing that exists, because it implicates believing without having certainty; faith doesn't have a mathematical logic, but it is the image of the absolute, or it implicates, at least, a search for it (understand Truth, God, etc...) Paradoxically, faith is elevated as it is a small light, dim and astonishingly fragile which has to be taken through human rubbish to illuminate our own internal comprehension (cfr. with Nostalgia). Tarkovsky's movies are loaded with great amounts of faith in man, in his capacity to green again dry trees, he has faith in future generations (symbolized by "Small Man" in The Sacrifice), they are an effort to revive the spiritual and all his work is a reflection about how to get there and a confession about the subjects that oppressed them. From Ivan's Childhood, which is his first intent (if it can be called intent), in which, from the most complex lack of harmony, perfect harmony is born in the dream, faith comes from dreams, from Andrei Rubliov's idealization, which is faith in art, and above all, the effort for art; in Solaris it is the acknowledgement of the internal world, in The Mirror, it is a confession and a portrait of his memories; in The Stalker, it is to dignify faith, his desperate search and material manifestation; in Nostalgia, it is a speech about faith and a struggle to keep it, and finally, in Sacrifice, it is a desperate yell for the only way that seems viable for the construction of order, for life to prevail: the sacrifice of material things to recover equilibrium, the ying and yang.

To man's capacity for destruction, Tarkovsky opposes characters who are true acts of faith (because in the beginning they are not even convinced of their mission), he opposes the person's capacity to believe and his capacity to create, and the utmost creation is art. Art is the ultimate search for regeneration because it is the ultimate spiritual experience, the possibility to create something independent from its author, which is nearly a divine ability and as the director said: "every work of art is an act of faith, faith in the idea" [9]. Art is presented as man's redemption, and when Alexander affirms that the actors are his own creation, he affirms that acting spiritually is to be oneself a work of art, it is to reach out to touch the Absolute.

II. Of apparent simplicity

In esthetics, it is said that, for a work of art to be considered as a masterpiece, the way in which the message is expressed must be equal to what is told, said in another way: if big things are said, they must me expressed in an equally sublime way. Tarkovsky's work transmits a deep message, and behind an apparent simplicity with which he tries to disguise his films, he finds coherence with his artistic theories which can only be qualified as perfect. This film-maker's formal work corresponds to his search for the absolute in a concrete and esthetic point of view.

Of symbolism and metaphor

The air balloon with which the movie Andrei Rubliov starts, Domenico's candle, Alexander's ying and yang, or even Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Domenico in flames, are not visual metaphors, in fact, Tarkovsky was a big enemy of interpretation [10] and metaphor. The association of two abstract ideas to form a third, abstract as well, is the opposite to what he was looking for.

The director proposes the use of symbolic elements, and the examples explained above are symbols. The symbol is essentially visual, it is representation, it as a direct communication which doesn't require an abstract interpretation. In fact, Tarkovsky can be deciphered by understanding the symbols he uses. Their use responds to the search of the absolute that the director wanted for art. The meaning of a symbol is eternal and unlimited, its sense is inexhaustible, and he perfectly replaces that which words are unable to describe. Communication with the spectator in these movies is a communication without limits, the message is transmitted directly in a secret language which descends from that which is purely esthetic: from the esthetic emotion generated by a well used symbol. Through a dialectic (opposition of counterparts) and if we consider that internal time is the real time — the universal understood in every instant- symbolism in Tarkovsky is to look at the small details, the small "acts" which concentrate the concrete realization of the absolute within man, of course. It is a dignification of the apparently insignificant, of small objects, the rush in Solaris, or the star at the bottom of the well in Ivan's Childhood; because, with the camera's eye they acquire a special value, a symbolic one. The long travellings centered on the details of Stalker's dreams, for example, or on the tree in Sacrifice (which symbolizes that which must be repaired), are a pause which highlights those elements' value. The audience has an active participation in these sequences (not to say in the whole movie) and they require all their attention, specially visually, on a world that has its own time and space.

In Tarkovsky's films we can identify some recurrent symbols which structure all his work: the mirror, above all, mirror of time, a look into self consciousness, even the screen becomes the mirror through which the author speaks to us, the mirror of oneselve's conscience. The water which fills all the scenes, even if it is only the sound of it, is present in all his movies, because it means the subconscious and the course of time, such as the mutability (or immutability if it is stable). The levitation which many of his characters experience and which symbolizes their internal state of being, separated from the material state. Fire, purifying, symbol of sacrifice, among others. The "simple" observation which the director proposes is reflected in long sequences with no music, with no sound, because the secret is found within his symbols and behind the silence of and internal world.

Of internal projection

The internal world is the characters' particular world. Tarkovsky concentrated in the internal course of time in the characters, in their emotional relation with the world, in their personal vision, and therefore, the world in which the characters develop is an internal projection, which is at the same time, all the time and all the space (as I mentioned in the first part of this work).

It is an internal projection which gives sense, in first place, to Nature. If its force is felt almost as one of a character on the screen, its active role comes from the fact that it is considered as a projection of conscience, for example, in the first sequence of The Mirror, or in the Zone. As Heiddeger said, nature is there, indifferent to man, but he makes it mean something through his own feelings by giving it an internal significance. Tu sculpt time is to choose the piece of time which is considered significant, and in that sense, the director manipulates the light and color (the great changes in light, or the changes to black and with, or the cuttlefish in dreams), to make time flow from a subjective point of view, to ma all temporal realities to coexist: dreams, history (in the documentaries), present, memory...

It is a projection which also gives sense to his film's formal part and which includes the audience to complete the cycle. He uses camera movements, such as long travellings as in Nostalgia, to represent the characters' mood, and the audience must penetrate this world, he must subject himself into an alternate reality, so real/personal, that it seems even surreal. In that sense, Tarkovsky's movies are structured from the character's point of view, the most elemental is perhaps Ivan "playing" war. However, it is not only a point of view, it is also a personal confession because we learn the most personal things about the characters. Here, words are not strictly necessary again, and Stalker's or Ivan's expressions formulate what can't be spoken: their inner struggle. A change of focus is needed to change a point of view (it is specially obvious at the end of Stalker and in Ivan's Childhood), and the characters speak like that, facing the camera, as if they were confessing to those who are watching them beyond the screen: us. In that sense, the dialogues in Tarkovsky's films have more than one dialogue with the spectator who actually is among the characters. Tarkovsky's films are reflexive, he doesn't teach anything, he doesn't have a didactical intention, he just makes a careful and deep meditation, and its endings, more similar to a books epilogue than those expected in a movies, give the work a mystic harmony which gathers in a coherent wholesome, in a symbolic resurrection, every developed element, and concludes to that which the prologues proposed (such as the ending of Nostalgia or The Sacrifice). His endings are an open reflection which leaves the spectator the possibility, or the responsibility, to make a personal conclusion.

III. Of the vision of art and humbleness

I remember one of Borges' tales The Quijote in which he said that they had found another version of this book, and he copied a piece of the original version changing only its punctuation. The idea is that in a work of art, every dot, every coma, every small detail, even something as insignificant as punctuation, is there for a reason, it is an essential part of the work and if even a dot is changed, it is not the same anymore. In Tarkovsky, such is the meaning of each image, every constructive element, every step that the characters take has a reason and an end, it forms a coherent wholesome, a piece or art, unique and absolute. His movies acquire the double poetical dimension: that of esthetical emotion: in the use of every element, its interrelation; and that of rigidity in form, in which every movie is as complex as a poem in which images are connected just as verses would be connected. Whoever affirms that cinema is not an art, has not seen one of Tarkovsky's movies.

The spiritual search which is presented in this Russian director's movies can only be explained because it leads to the search of art, because as Tarkovsky said: "to create a concept of art, one has to confront another concept: why does man exist?" [11]. And the use of art as a means of expression and as a proposal (existential proposal as in Andrei Rubliov) if we talk about movies properly, even as a scenic element (Leonardo's engravings, Michael Angelo, Brueghel, Durero) it comes from the concept of art as a fundamental dialogue of man with the absolute, of his constructive capacity in a world which destroys; of the neoplatonic concept of art which affirms that the work has existed forever, independent of its author who, "just as the sculptor takes a piece of marble and unconsciously knows the aspect it will have once the piece is finished and removes all that doesn't belong to it, the director takes from a big piece of time, only what is essential..." [12]. This way, to create a work of art is, in Tarkovsky's words: "an act of faith", of faith in the idea to which the creator subjects himself and besides, in that which has the responsibility to "reveal what he has seen of the world" [13].

Each Tarkovsky movie is an act of faith, an honest confession of his vision of the world subjected to the them that "grows within the artist and demands expression". It is a humble position from which he doesn't visualize himself as a creator but as a maker, and where he speaks from an internal world by an inner means of expression directly to the depths of his audience, and that's where all of Tarkovsky's visual and human power comes from. The director said that "there are two kinds of film-makers: those who recreate the world that surrounds them, and those who, like Bergman, Buñuel, etc... create their own worlds, and these last are called poets" ergo Andrei Tarkovsky is a poet.


To talk about Tarkovsky's filmography is to talk about a reflexive, profound and apparently confusing cinema. In a way that he responds to his own internal logic, and paradoxically interrelates the spectator in a direct and profound way. Just as music is a communication from heart to heart, Tarkovsky's symbolic images are the communication from a poet's soul to the spectator's soul. His eagerness to show, in the purest sense of the word, the "facts, is only comprehendible in his vision of cinema as an art in which bosom time is sculpted and from which that which is significant is extracted; that which explores in memory and in the course of time the sole experience of Life. His work is a desperate yearning to save the spiritual parts of Man, to find his salvation in a world subjected to science and matter. To destruction and evilness he opposes the most creative part of the human being: art, man's savior because it protects his most spiritual and divine ability.

It is a meditative kind of film-making, more likely to a philosophical debate than a simple reflection which explores, through a merely symbolic world, man's situation in the world, his tragic and at the same time transcendent capacity, his end, his possibility to reach salvation. And even so, Tarkovsky doesn't limit his work to a moral message or a conception of art, his work is his testimony, the confession of one man to another, with simplicity and humbleness, of that which he has learned from the world, and maybe it is there where his profoundness and universalism lie.

Bergman said that he would change all his filmography for one of Tarkovsky's sequences, that this last walks with confidence in a world that he hasn't been able to penetrate. I am not Bergman, nor have I ever created a movie, but I can say that I have never contemplated a work of art (painting, music or literature...) more perfect, more profound and more honest than Andrei Tarkovsky's film work. It is said that there are great poets: those who say great things but whose style is not perfect; that there are good poets who are those whose style is very good but don't say great things, and there are, a few others which are good and great... Tarkovsky is one of them. end block


[1] Vid: Directed by Tarkovsky. Dir. Michal Leszcylowski. Sweden. 1988. 101 mins. Color.
[2] TARKOVSKY. Andrei. To sculpt time..Mexico, CUEC: 1993 pp.247
[3] TUROVSKAYA.Maya. Cinema as Poetry. Trd.Natasha Ward. London. Edit. Faber and Faber:1986.p. 92
[4] TARKOVSKY. Andrei. op.cit. p.12
[5] We remember here that his philosophy was understood as "I only know that I know nothing"
[6] Vid. Michal Leszcylowski, op cit.
[7] Cfr. Alexander's Monologues in The Sacrifice
[8] Vid. Michal Leszcylowski, op cit
[9] Vid. Michal Leszcylowski, op cit
[10] Cfr. TUROVSKAYA.Maya. Cinema as Poetry. Trd.Natasha Ward. Londres. Edit. Faber and Faber:1986.p
[11] Vid. Michal Leszcylowski, op cit
[12] Vid. Michal Leszcylowski, op cit
[13] Vid. Michal Leszcylowski, op cit


LESZCYLOWSKI. Michal (dir.). Directed by Tarkovsky. Sweden. 1988. 101 mins
TARKOVSKY. Andrei. To sculpt time. Mexico, CUEC: 1993
TUROVSKAYA. Maya. Cinema as Poetry. Trd. Natasha Ward. Londres. Edit. Faber and Faber: 1986

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