Gregory Halvorsen Schreck
Editor's Note: Professor Schreck's critique of The Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky will appear in a future issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
The films of the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky represent an exceptional Christian vision. His artistic vision was profoundly original and provocative, yet also profoundly Christian. It is impossible to separate his art from his faith. A Russian Orthodox Christian, Tarkovsky stated that his films "are one thing, the extreme manifestation of faith." At the base of his work, at the very conception of his ideas about form, lies his spirituality.
Tarkovsky's artistic sensibility necessarily runs against the market values that guide the film industry and mass culture in general. His films are highly unusual because they were entirely conceived and produced outside of a market economy. His vision began and ended with a profound sense of calling, of obedience to an inner voice that originated from his relationship to God. This sensibility stands in sharp contrast to the concerns of Hollywood, which begin and end with marketability and mass appeal. It is especially exceptional in the film industry, where the high cost of production always seems to require keeping an eye toward the public. Given this posture, even more astounding is his success. Critical recognition and myriad awards followed Tarkovsky's films as a matter of routine, despite deep opposition by the state cultural apparatus of the Soviet Union. He was able to keep working only because embarrassed censors were unable to silence an international Russian talent, who many thought was the best director since the renowned Sergei Eisenstein.
A Radical Christian Message
Tarkovsky's films offer a redemptive vision that expresses a solution to society primarily in terms of spiritual regeneration. As he wrote, "The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good." (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections of the Cinema [Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986], 43). Tarkovsky's radical Christian message offers an idea of redemption that addresses many human concerns. Moreover, he offers viewers the possibility of an inner healing that goes beyond the scope of any political theory. This notion that the artist makes a sacrifice, that he becomes a servant accountable to God and to society, is clearly expressed in Tarkovsky films, Andrei Rublev, The Stalker, and The Sacrifice.
Tarkovsky, a devout Christian, spent his career fighting against a Marxist state apparatus that sought to censor his work. Official objections to his films included complaints that they were elitist and too religious. A member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Tarkovsky made assessments and proposed solutions to contemporary problems that were necessarily antimaterialist in nature. He hoped for a renewed and revitalized relationship between humankind and God, one that would cause humans to hear, heed, and obey an "inner voice" that could guide them away from the values of a materialist, consumerist society.
During the second half of the 1960s, the Kremlin began a new era of repression. Numerous films were delayed and took years to reach the screen. The most prominent "shelving" was Tarkovsky's epic Andrei Rublev, the story of a fifteenth-century icon painter. It was heralded as the most innovative historical film since Eisenstein's historical epics. Tarkovsky evoked the conditions of Rublev's great national painting, the Trinity Icon, a work of deep spiritual inspiration and human empathy. This was depicted against a backdrop of tremendous brutality and bloodshed. Authorities thought it too "dark" (and probably too religious) for release during the fiftieth anniversary year of the October Revolution. The film was eventually released years later and reedited to remove the most objectionable material. Even so, the film was showered with critical accolades and won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. Soviet authorities then forbade its entry in other festivals. Eventually, it won the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Work in Exile
By the time Tarkovsky finished The Stalker in 1977 he suffered a heart attack brought on by stress, debt because of budget overruns, and restrictions placed around all his films. Tarkovsky and his wife Larissa defected to Italy in 1982. The planned departure of their son Andrei was foiled and he was made to stay in the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky spent the rest of his life trying to make the political contacts that would enable his son to emigrate and live with them. In 1985 he began production in Sweden of his final film, The Sacrifice. He used members of Ingmar Bergman's production crew to complete the film, most notably cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The 1986 release of the film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Tarkovsky, diagnosed with a brain tumor during the filming, died of cancer in Paris at the end of 1986, only weeks after his son was released from the Soviet Union. Ironically, his death coincided with the early days of perestroika, which would have enabled him to return to Moscow to work unfettered. Tarkovsky's films had been banned in the Soviet Union since his exile in 1982. Since 1987 seminars and conferences have been regularly held in Russia to celebrate his work.
Gregory Halvorsen Schreck is associate professor of art, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.
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© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report