A dying man experiences the tragic dualism of past and present, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s autobiographical masterpiece The Mirror.
Perhaps the best way to indicate the very unusual nature of The Mirror, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 masterwork, is to say that it is both the most painstakingly structured of Tarkovsky’s films and the least linear of his narratives. Although the director claimed that the picture was not obscure or mysterious, it is certainly demanding. The receptivity required to understand and appreciate The Mirror is of a kind with the intense inward drama that is depicted.
The film’s narrator, for the most part cloaked in shadow when we see him as an adult, recalls scenes from his childhood, including some involving his mother as a young woman that he might only have been told about or imagined. These pieces of the past, sensually vivid, blend in and out of sequences from the present, in which the narrator is in his apartment—talking on the phone to his mother, now an old woman; quarreling with his ex-wife; and having dreams in which figures and symbols of the Russian past mix with his own memories. A third layer involves historical footage and other newsreel-type fragments evoking the overpowering force of the world outside the narrator and his family, especially the terrible Second World War, in which the elusive figure of the narrator’s father plays a part.
The Mirror presents a tragic dualism of past and present—the past is identified with nature, beautiful yet strange and inhuman. The film’s shards of memory are lit with exquisite care. The wind, the movement of water, the reflections of sunlight on objects, are precisely orchestrated to create a feeling of the past as always “other,” beckoning to us with its beauty but somehow beyond our reach. The sequences in the present, on the other hand, convey a bleak sense of guilt and loss. The narrator’s true predicament only becomes evident when we realize that he is dying. In the face of life’s end, he finds that he doesn’t know how to redeem himself from the past.
The film employs the theme of deja vu to link the religious impulse with the uncanny power of memory. The same actress (Margarita Terekhova) plays the narrator’s mother as a young woman and his ex-wife. He has a young son as well, and the actor who plays him also plays the narrator as a boy. Many other metaphorical images recur: the bird as divine messenger, for instance, and the burning house. There is also much symbolism that is specifically Russian–it helps for the viewer to be acquainted with at least some 19th century Russian literature.
Some would argue that no film should require more than one viewing to be appreciated. But there are different kinds of films. I needed to see The Mirror twice, not only to more fully grasp the movie’s formal qualities, but to open myself to the highly emotional nature of the work. On death’s door, Tarkovsky is saying, the slightest bits of the past preserved in our minds take on the importance of eternal verities. In The Mirror, we are invited to become rapt with the miracle of our birth, and to see the inexorable force of time both tragically and in the light of a transfiguring “beyond.”
The Mirror is available on DVD.