Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the kings of art house cinema. He made only seven films in his unnaturally shortened career, and he was in constant conflict with the authorities of the Soviet Union about the content of his films, particularly the religious aspects. He began his career during the brief period under Nikita Khrushchev when Soviet control over art was relaxed (one of the first major cinematic works under this policy being Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying) with his 1962 debut Ivan’s Childhood, but it was very early in the production of his second film, Andrei Rublev, when the policy ended with the overthrow of Khrushchev.
Conflict with the Soviet authorities defined his work from then on, limiting what he was allowed to say in Solaris, Mirror, and Stalker. He went to Italy to work on Nostalghia with Mosfilm money, but when they pulled financing, he stayed in the West for the rest of his life.
His life was cut short by cancer that he most likely contracted while filming in the toxic environment in Tillmann, Estonia during the extended production of Stalker, succumbing shortly after he finished his last film, the Swedish production The Sacrifice.
Still, with only seven films he left an incredible impression on the world of cinema, and I own every one of his films. They’re all special in their quiet, contemplative, and methodical ways. His most “commercial” film is probably Ivan’s Childhood, his first, but that’s honestly not saying much. His films are just honestly not for everyone. I kind of wish they were, but they’re not exactly the kind of films you pop some popcorn to throw in on a Friday night after a long week’s worth of work.
Below are my rankings of the man’s work, definitively of course. Much like my rankings of Ingmar Bergman’s best films, this is largely pointless since there’s so little room between each. But still, check out all of my other definitive lists while you’re around.
“Ivan’s Childhood is a good film from a great filmmaker, his first that shows real promise for his future.”
“For a slow-moving movie, Solaris has a lot going on. It’s a dense, intelligent film that uses emotional storytelling to explore a more intellectual concept. It’s also a film really designed for a certain set of cinematic tastebuds.”
“Out of a short career ruling the art cinema world, Tarkovsky’s Mirror is the most artsy-fartsy film he made. Explicitly experimental in construction, it’s the least accessible. However, I get swept up in it. The questions it raises, the strong performances, and the incredible aesthetics combine for an endlessly fascinating film experience that I really do enjoy.”
“Nostlaghia represents a further refinement of Tarkovsky’s style after the chaos of the previous production, completely freed from the constraints of the Soviet bureaucracy, and still yearning for meaning.”
“The Sacrifice is something special. Many final films of great directors feel like the spent leavings of a great mind, but Tarkovsky went out swinging for the fences. His quiet ode to his cinematic hero, Ingmar Bergman, has a surprising life and vitality all its own that makes it truly shine in an already bright cinematic oeuvre. It’s a beautiful movie that takes its time to fruit, but fruits beautifully nonetheless.”
“There’s something that cuts deeply and quietly about Stalker. Investing in the steady journey towards the Room ends up being incredibly rewarding intellectually and emotionally. It’s a subtle and affecting film, that honestly never should have been made. However, since it was made, I do love it.”
“Andrei Rublev is an obviously deeply personal work on an incredibly grand scale. It’s also a fascinating historical anomaly as an individualist finds a way to tell such a personal and religiously spiritual story in the middle of the collectivist oppression that was the Soviet Union. There’s a reason Tarkovsky ended up in exile after a certain point.”