There was a period when the more cinematically preconceited version of myself would endure a full Tarkovsky feature with great difficulty. And most such attempts would terminate prematurely. In fact, a similar case would occur with some Fellini, Kurosawa, or Bergman films. I had to gradually transform my expectations to connect with these filmmakers.
What follows is my preface to the Tarkovsky cinema; without spoiling material. Had I initially approached those films with such a preface handy, I would have spent less time combating drowsiness, and more time stricken with awe.
To put it simply, Andrei Tarkovsky films are better viewed entirely without cinematic or storytelling expectations. I would say the notion of a plot bears little importance throughout these films. It’s more about the emotions evoked. It’s more about each scene viewed as an independent artistic exposition.
There is storytelling presence. Each film introduces some characters with a supposed purpose. There is a journey they undertake. Along the way a few surprises may fall. However, I find these stories as nothing more than skeletons. They are but a few chords to improvise around, proceeding into uncharted territory; at notoriously slow pace.
One of his earlier films, Solaris (Солярис), inspired by Stanisław Lem’s sci-fi novel, presents an element of a story more so than the other features. This film I found the easiest to digest when first introduced to Tarkovsky. And even so, compared to a traditional sci-fi film, the story unwinds at an extremely slow pace. If the story is your expectation, you’ll leave disappointed.
Solaris also takes a severe detour from the source material to arrive at an entirely different philosophical end. The author showed disapproval of this liberty. And if you come to critique an art film in the context of a philosophical novel, you might too question the impact. I would recommend viewing the film independently of the book, and each scene independently of the film.
The above advice I give for viewing any of his films. Forget the story. Forget the meaning. Rather, find your own. Or simply marvel at the scenes. Each one unfolds with cinematographic bliss. Sometimes you’ll see a few people talking. Sometimes they merely move along the passage. Or a setting might exhibit nothing but scenery.
Tarkovsky showcased organic imagery that speaks for itself. A person slowly traverses a rough patch of a field; or struggles through a swamp. An illness ensues. Perspiration. Intense rainfall. Fog. Objects shatter. Flames. Leakage. Rustling of leaves. Sewage. Echo. Animal life. Aliment consumption.
Tarkovsky also aggressively varied the hues throughout his works. A scene may seamlessly transition from full color to black and white, or occasionally to a limited hue range. Sometimes this carries a clear purpose, other times to me remains inexplicable. A specific hue range may emphasize certain detail. Or it may aim for the opposite.
The films, of which I’ve viewed all but the debut, begin with notable stillness; as simple as a couple of people conversing on a mundane subject in an empty environment. You’ll experience unusually long takes, a matter I find calming and yet provocative, in comparison to the anticipated frequent cuts of commercial film productions. A seemingly dull moment might extend for eternity. Time loses it’s traditional function.
Cinema like this demands investment and patience from the viewer to appreciate. Recultivate those qualities if you’ve lost touch with them. In doing so, you’ll not only learn to appreciate other not immediately accessible cinematic works, but nurture self-awareness.