Chasing Andrei

Saturday night’s director event at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center could have been called a lot of things, not the least accurate being something like “Trakovsky does Tarkovsky,” or “Solaris Changed My Life–Let’s See Who Else Agrees.” But the FSC went with the sufficiently self-evident, “Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky,” after the title of the film being shown: 26-year-old Dmitry Trakovsky’s (henceforth referred to as Dmitry) debut documentary.  The film charts the persistent fascination that Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s work holds both for those who were close to him and those who worship from afar.

The film is edged along by delicately composed (and often quite stirring) interviews with the actors, editors, and scholars over whose lives Tarkovsky still looms large. Rather than presenting a portrait of the man, it feels out the contours that remain impressed into those trapped in his orbit. As Dmitry follows the director’s path through Venice, Florence, Stockholm, and finally Moscow, “Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky” never shakes the feel of a detective in hot pursuit of his next clue.

“Death doesn’t exist,” Tarkovsky’s famously opaque axiom, haunts the film thematically, but the most persistent strength of Dimitry’s work is its use of visual language. In a wrenching scene, the camera closes in on the shaking hands of aged Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) star Erland Josephson as he thumbs through old four-by-fives of his former director, who died in 1986. The Swedish actor teeters on the knife’s edge between despair and wistfulness, and at each moment it seems like the photographs might burst from his hands like playing cards in a botched magic trick.

The film is riddled with odes to the principle subject’s stylistic signatures–like the sustained, hypnotic take quintessential to Tarkovsky’s breed of ‘Remodernist’ film. In exhibiting Dmitry’s own abilities, it works and it doesn’t. During a conversation with Tarkovsky’s longtime friend and collaborator, Krzysztof Zanussi, the camera remains on the sitter long after he has finished speaking, breaking Dmitry’s hold on the audience.

One stunning close-up, shot in the rain at an Orthodox monastery in woodsy Northern California where a monk claims that Solaris (1972) inspired him to renounce secular life, dwells for all of thirty seconds on a twinkling wind-chime made of cut-up geodes. It’s positively Tarkovskian. And, despite Dmitry’s decision not to produce a survey of the director’s life and work, we get to witness just how potent his influence has been. We might not get to know Tarkovsky from Dmitry’s film, but at least we’ve met him.