It’s difficult to know where to start with this film. It contains only the loosest of narrative frameworks, and it seems as if the narrative is not the point. Instead what we are presented with is a series of loosely connected images, with faces that become familiar as the film goes along, but we are often uncertain both of the relationships between characters within scenes and of the scenes to each other. In this way, the film then strikes me more as a poem, with tons of loosely connected images that together form something unique, puzzling, and beautiful.The thing I was struck by most strongly initially was the fluidity and assurance of Tarkovsky’s camera. There was a very safe kind of feeling in this, because I instinctively knew that I was in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing, the kind of confidence one gives to their doctor or dentist. The shots themselves are often complicated, with movement up and down, left and right, forward and backward, zooming in or zooming out. I think here of the final shot, which stays with the mother and boys across the field, onto the road, and as they walk, the camera retreats back through the trees as they fade from our vision. It was as if we had joined them on their journey for a time. We are with them, and then we are not.
Time seems significant in the film as it darts back and forth, from the past to the present and vice versa. Memories become jumbled up. Certain images from the present meld themselves back into the memory of the past. I think here of the off camera speaker who tells his (ex?) wife that he pictures her as his mother whenever he thinks of the past. I wonder also if other characters experience this same transformation, though not explicitly stated. But this darting back and forth, this melding of past and present seems to indicate something about the nature of our lives in this world. It seems that wherever we are and whatever we find ourselves doing, the past is always with us. The past is always informing who we are. Or maybe I should say our memory of the past is doing the informing. Of course, all this talk about the past has me thinking of that line from Magnolia, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
I am also reminded of what struck me as one of the stranger scenes in the film…the first scene of the television program. No doubt this has significance in the film, but it is more disconnected with the events and characters of the film than pretty much anything else (even if this is a program Ignat is watching). Basically, it involves a young man who has a stuttering problem, and the healing he receives from a doctor or nurse of some sort. As I think about it now, the healing was strangely reminiscent of some of the odd things Jesus does when he heals people, such as covering the eyes of the blind man with mud. She touches his head, makes him lose his balance a couple of times, and makes him hold his hands steady. And then, somehow, he is healed of his problem.
Two things seem important about this scene: First, it is unexplainable. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of scientific method she uses. It is coming through some sort of hypnosis or other tradition used to cure such ills. Or maybe something supernatural is going on. Whatever the case, it isn’t him taking some pills or going through some kind of speech therapy. And this seems to parallel a bit the situation near the end of the film when the man is in the hospital, and there isn’t certainty about what is wrong with him. Second, the emphasis at the end of the scene is definitely on speech, on being able to speak clearly and strongly. I was struck by it, but am not sure how it might inform other elements of the film.
In the end, the image of a mirror is at least in part a means for us humans to look at ourselves, both in a personal and a collective sense. Each of us viewing the film see ourselves in mirrors everyday, but are we really looking? But we also, through the film, have the opportunity to see others, as the camera dwells on many mirrors throughout. Sometimes those mirrors contain people or objects, sometimes not. Part of what it seems Tarkovsky is doing here is offering an opportunity to look at humanity in general, and ourselves more specifically. So as I leave this film, I am left with questions, and not many answers, on these issues. Who am I? Who was I? Who are we collectively? How do those things that have touched us, taught us, and scarred us, make us who we are today?