[15 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Spirituality can be sourced through many things, religion being primary among them. It can also be found in remembering. From the time we are young until the day we die, we are constantly seeking answers to our purpose, plowing through both the lessons we’re taught in organized philosophies and the fleeting glimpses of a past overloaded with lives. We tend to trade off quite a bit, using gospels that apply while dispelling those which seem outdated. Similarly, we struggle through our own recollections, trying to tell ourselves that these were actually the best of/worst of times and we are lucky/cursed in having experienced them. Nothing truly transcends. There’s no moment of grace, no inspired insight which carries you through to the next hour, or the next breath.
For filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (perhaps best known for his sci-fi study Solaris), memory is fleeting. It is also meaningful and muddy. From the cloudy vignettes which seem to suggest an autobiography to the couplets crafted by a distant, disinterested father, his movie Mirror manages to be both elusive and endearingly emotional. It carries us across three distinct dimensions (pre, post, and long after the War) while reducing such earth shattering events to bystanders in the everyday moves of the Russian people. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, on the other hand, French icon Carl Theodor Dreyer takes the trial and execution of the title character and turns it into a testament of faith. We all know how Joan’s journey ends. How she gets there is as painful and heartbreaking as revisiting an existence marred by equally agonizing events.
With both films entering the 2012 Sight & Sound Best of List at number nine (Joan overall, Mirror making the director’s cut), it’s intriguing to explore their complimentary concerns. For Dreyer, the actual transcript of Joan’s inquisition spawns a study in faces, each one reflecting the dogmatic determination of the participants. Mirror manages something similar, though offered in a complicated collage of stock footage, poems, the standard staged cinematic scenes, and an obtuse, non-linear structure. In the end, we experience a kind of revelation with each. With Joan, we see how men manipulated a scared and seemingly innocent woman into condemning herself for crimes which seem silly today. Mirror makes the case that ours is not a wholly meaningful time on this planet. Instead, it is made up of moments, each one more or less unrelated to the others, each one providing its own sense of import and triviality.
There is nothing slight about Dreyer’s silent masterpiece. With a performance by actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti so awe-inspiring that her peers should feel ashamed to be mentioned in the same artistic breath, we have a simple strategy revealing layers of determining detail. We witness the ordeal of this illiterate 19-year-old through the expressions of those committed to judging her. These power mad priests with their allegiances and agendas elsewhere use to all manner of coercion and chicanery to get poor, passive Joan to confess. They even withhold communion from her, hoping her obsessive need to be close to God will force her to sign her own condemnation. Finally, the threat of death drives her to defy her purpose. Later, she recants, and is burned at the stake.
Mirror is never that easy. Instead, it is an often incomprehensible collection of one man’s inner most melancholy. It’s a structure-less statement of how small parts from the past become tentpoles in our remembrance. Through the character of Alexei (Ignat Daniltsev) - nothing more than a stand-in for Tarkovsky - we learn of a hard childhood, the struggles under Stalin, the fear found in the everyday events of living, and the peace promised when death finally comes. Through the character as his shattered inner visions, we experience the source of his anguish (his mother, his failed marriage) and the moments which, unfortunately meant the most (army training, a reunion with his father). Unlike the stereotypical life passing before one’s eyes, Alexei experiences fragments. His are puzzle pieces, purposefully oblique but when placed together, painting a picture of who the man is/was.
Both films substitute inference for internal monologuing. Dreyer did not have the benefit of sound, but there is readable beauty and horror in the way he films Joan. Her face looking skyward, her eyes barely blinking, she is consumed by God and his grace. She is unwavering in her belief and cannot fathom why these men of the cloth would denounce her for same. Exhausted and cross-examined, she gives up only because she understands that there will be no peace within this particular set-up. She was destined to die the minute she made her statements. In Alexei’s case, Tarkovsky is not condemning him. Instead, he is arguing against his unexplored and unexceptional life. Sure, the individual moments have meaning, but they tend to trail off. With Joan, every reaction is a reflection. Mirror barely manages that.
Yet both films deserve their recognition (though it is much easier to argue out of Mirror‘s placement so high up on the director’s list). The Passion of Joan of Arc is easily one of the greatest silent statements ever, Dryer’s determination to capture everything in close-up lending even more scope and power to the last act rebellion by the commoners. Everything registers in the eyes - all the hate, all the horror, all the holiness. It’s akin to witnessing the classic canvases of the great masters come to magically life. Mirror is equally artistic, yet far more elusive. It’s joys are only accessible after multiple viewings and some background information on Tarkovsky, his life, and his historic and/or personal inspirations. One movie dares you to ignore it. The other figures you will anyway…and doesn’t really care.
Mysticism and the meaning of life have driven many a cinematic experiment. Film has a hard time translating faith, even to those who recognize its tenets. The Passion of Joan of Arc couldn’t be more blatant in its beliefs. It showcases such powerful devotion that it defies even the most ardent atheist. Mirror, on the other hand, looks for the God inside Man, the maker’s meaning in the meandering events of human existence. It doesn’t postulate to place some idea above others. It doesn’t reduce its characters to communicating with a higher power. Instead, Tarkovsky tries to emulate the way in which our brain develops significance. We experience everything. Some things we process and put away. Others are lost forever. In the end, spiritual peace comes with the acceptance of something outside yourself. Both movies make this case loud and clear.