September 9, 2004

The Desire Realm of the 5 Destinies

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Since this is the inaugural edition of The Desire Realm of the Five Destinies, it would be appropriate to say what this column hopes to achieve. It”s often very difficult to approach a certain artist without feeling either overwhelmed or confused. So we”re going to try to help out by surveying several directors, actors, musicians, and authors, and telling you their five most important works, in order of their importance (according to us, of course).

Andrei Tarkovsky is probably the single greatest Russian director of the last half-century, and his works have often been disregarded in the United States for their patience-defying length and curious mysticism. But his movies stand as some of the most personal, perspicacious, and peculiar works of international cinema.

1. Stalker (1979)

Stalker is Tarkovsky”s brilliant synthesis of all his most noteworthy elements. The movie revels in science-fiction paranoia, elusive occultism, political allegory, highly personal symbolism, and anxious invocations of faith and doubt. It also features his most bizarre plot: Two mysterious wanderers (The Writer and The Scientist) are led through something called The Zone by The Stalker — a sort of shamanistic tour guide for a voyage through a place where objects rush around in perpetual flux, driving each of the characters to either insanity or resignation. And yet they persevere towards the end of The Zone and The Room, a realm that offers infinite and spiritual gratification. A gigantic metaphor for everything from the greed behind the arms race to the human compulsion to order and arrange chaos, Stalker is Tarkovsky”s greatest and least appreciated film.

2. The Mirror (1974)

It may not be as coherent or terrifying as Stalker, but it offers Tarkovsky”s best individual scenes and displays his brilliant, unerring talent for beautiful cinematography. An autobiographical film, Mirror structures a young boy”s life through clangorous black-and-white realism, subdued country landscapes, and brief patches of documentary and newsreel footage. Certain scenes (the burning of a farmhouse, the endless sea of wheat stalks floating in a fierce wind) are as contemplative, nostalgic, and ravishing as any in the history of cinema, brimming with a clarity and seduction most directors never come close to approaching.

3. Andrei Rublev (1969)

Few films in all of cinema cast a spell like Andrei Rublev. Widely regarded as a modern masterwork, Rublev stands as perhaps Tarkovsky”s most profound statement. Chronicling the rise to prominence and terrified disillusionment of the great Russian icon painter, Rublev stands as a gorgeous meditation on the transformative power of art, the destructive nature of man, and the redemptive power of the sacred.

4. Solaris (1972)

Solaris is probably Tarkovsky”s best-known film. Based on a book by the great Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, Solaris sends Kris Kelvin (Donata Banionis) to a plagued space station; a planet has begun to influence its observers. Although Tarkovsky reportedly made the film as a reaction against 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris is similarly concerned with the malleability of memory and history, as well as the impact of ceaseless technology upon a species more preoccupied with spiritual and romantic longing. It”s also got a devastating twist-ending shot.

5. The Sacrifice (1986)

Tarkovsky”s last film, its history has often overshadowed it”s merit as an artistic achievement. Filmed in Sweden while Tarkovsky was dying in political exile, the film drops the viewer on the brink of the apocalypse with a father who has a powerful choice to make. Slow and mesmerizing in its imagery, The Sacrifice builds subtely toward an emotionally overwhelming final sequence. Essentially a cinematic love letter to the son he would never see again, it is Tarkovsky”s most personal work.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt and Zach Jones