The Mirror (1974)

Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental  |   Sub-Genres - Essay Film  |   Run Time - 90 min.  |   Countries - USSR  |  
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Andrei Tarkovsky's career, truncated by Soviet political meddling, and his life, cut short in 1986 by lung cancer, come together in his most personal film. An ailing middle-aged man (the unseen narrator) finds echoes of his present life -- marked by conflict with his wife and love for his only son, who has to choose which parent to live with -- in memories of his experiences during World War II, when he and his mother and sister evacuated from Moscow to the safer countryside. Reportedly, contemporary Soviet reaction to this film, both from officials and civilian audiences alike, was one of astonishment for its nonlinear construction, but for Western audiences used to the films of Stan Brakhage and other avatars of the avant-garde, Tarkovsky's dreamlike narrative, supported by readings of several of his father's poems, wouldn't seem all that radical. For a man who once said, "I am categorically against entertainment in the cinema; it is as degrading for the author as it is for the audience," Tarkovsky offers a number of playful touches: a shot of a poster for his film Andrei Rublev in the narrator's apartment, a whimsical encounter between his mother and a physician passing by her house, and a practical joke involving a rebellious boy in military training and a grenade. Still, the overall mood is one of somber reflection on the currents of history and memory, with stark helpings of newsreel footage of World War II, including children being separated from their parents under threat of bombing raids. The visual imagery, with repeated references to water, fire, birds, wind whipping through grassy fields, and, of course, mirrors, maintains the viewer's engagement even when the reference point isn't clear. In the dual role of the narrator's mother and wife (in two different time periods), Margarita Terekhova is a striking and talented actress, another important access point in an unconventional but rewarding film.