Until this morning I thought that Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-9; 1998) was the only documentary about films that itself is a work of great art. Now I know better. Chris Marker’s—Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve’s—Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevich, about Andrei Tarkovsky and his films, is a brilliant piece of work. It was originally broadcast as an episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps (Filmmakers of Our Time).
Scenes of Tarkovsky on his hospital bed—Tarkovsky died of cancer in 1986—are moving, most of all, not because of the sadness of his waning health but because of his unabated joie de vivre. Given how sober his films are, I was surprised at how upbeat Tarkovsky is shown to have been during the shooting of his last film, The Sacrifice (Offret, 1985), despite the single chance left for the filming of an exceedingly complicated shot, not to mention his ongoing self-exile from his beloved Russia, which in its Soviet incarnation contested his freedom of expression throughout his career.
Most of Marker’s endeavor, generously employing clips, however, provides extraordinary critical commentary on Tarkovsky’s films. For instance, they are shown to “come full circle,” from the opening shot of a young boy by a young tree in Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962), to the shot of a child lying under a dead tree in The Sacrifice.
Drawing upon his own insights and, perhaps, remarks by Tarkovsky himself, Marker addresses a handful of materials that Tarkovsky’s cinema embraced, including the four elements (earth, air, water, fire), a shot sometimes employing two of these simultaneously, lofty camera placements emphasizing ground rather than sky, and Tarkovsky’s Orthodox Christianity, with a crisp aside as to its difference from Roman Catholicism.
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