Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky completed only six feature films in a directorial career of more than 20 years. Each realizes a personal world intense and individual, ranging from that of a boy soldier during the Second World War, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), to that of three scientists, far in the future, orbiting a sentient planet, Solaris (1972). Together, Trakovsky’s films offer a vision of what cinema can be, a meditation on the individual’s relationship to the transcendent.
Voyage in Time, a one-hour television film, snatches a fragment of Tarkovsky’s working life. It catalogues one summer in the long partnership between Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra, which culminated in Tarkovsky’s threnody for his life in the Soviet Union, Nostalghia (1983). In this film, a Soviet writer, Andrei Gotchakov (Oleg Yonovsky), undertakes a month-long research trip to Italy, where he is assailed by a soul-threatening homesickness for his wife and child, who remain in the Soviet Union. The power of Voyage in Time lies in the parallels between the director’s life and that of his protagonist, as they offer insight into the transformation of the personal — autobiography, philosophy, psychology — to the universal, which Tarkovsky called “the meaning of cinema.”
According to his diaries, Tarkovsky reached Italy on his first two-month trip both elated and edgy. Personal and professional mortality pre-occupied him. The previous year, he had suffered a heart attack at the age of 46. In addition, Soviet authorities did not allow his wife and son to accompany him to Italy, a common tactic to encourage those allowed to travel abroad to return to the USSR. As his struggles with the Soviet censors grew more protracted, he feared he would be silenced as a filmmaker. At the same time, he was growing to love Italy, the nation that eventually became his home when he defected from the Soviet Union in 1984.
In this complex mood, he and Guerra embarked on a cross-country journey, scouting locations for their film, test-shooting as they went. The resulting documentary reveals their process of collaboration, emerging not simply between two men who see the world through film, but between two cultures and many eras. The conceit of a day spent going over their two months of work frames this meditation. As the artists move between the balcony and the interior of Guerra’s Rome apartment, they discuss the locations they might use and the nature of their protagonist (how interested is he in architecture, where might he live?). As they mention each location, the film cuts in footage from that town or village, usually featuring an apparently ad hoc encounter. In Lecce they stop a priest on the street and quiz him about the peculiar quality of its architecture. In Sorrento they fail, in two languages, to find the white marble floor painted with rose petals for a Russian countess.
So far, so travelogue, albeit with intellectually demanding guides whose patience with minutiae might outlast that of their audience. As the “day” goes on, Tarkovsky answers questions about his work purportedly sent to Guerra by young cinephiles. These responses are less directly illuminating of his cinematic passion than Michal Leszczylowski’s biopic Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1987). But they do begin to conjure up the time of the mind, the clashes of happenstance and memory, the long-dead and the never-realized, from which Tarkovsky and Guerra are inventing Nostalghia and which, retrospectively, emerges as the core of Voyage in Time.
The alchemy of their collaboration is perhaps best illustrated when Tarkovsky succumbs to irritation at his itinerary. In his Italian diaries, he enthuses about Italy’s natural and architectural beauty. But as he and Guerra move from mediaeval church to mediaeval church, the repetition bothers him, for he can see no way in which their protagonist can live as they imagine him living in this tourist-strewn landscape. Guerra exclaims that he doesn’t care if Tarkovsky forgets everything he has seen the very next day: they have to explore the motivation of a Russian who has come to Italy for a month. Guerra then draws a magical analogy, describing how a painter from his village, when he is teaching students, gives them an iron ball to hold in their left hand and a pencil in their right. He then asks them to draw a circle. They draw their circles, and each circle has volume, for it contains the weight of the ball in their left hand. In the same way, he wants Tarkovsky to carry the weight of all Italy into each shot in the film.
At this moment Tarkovsky’s resistance collapses: he confesses he feels as if he is on holiday instead of working. It’s hard not to hear a trace of guilt that he has found contentment in his temporary exile, a theme to which a later shot of Tarkovsky, turned away from the camera, leaning against a wall and twisting his wedding ring, also refers. Neither Nostalghia‘s protagonist nor the director can remain an abstract character. From the wandering scholar Andrei Gotchakov emerges the man so sunk in anomie only an apocalyptic visionary can arouse him; from the world-famous director filming his own artistic process emerges a man facing the possibility that he might have to choose between his family and his work.
In a 1979 interview with Guerra, Tarkovsky claims he always wanted to film like an amateur. He says he craved “the possibility to observe nature, and people, and film them, without haste. The story would be born autonomously; as the result of these observations, not from obliged shots, planned in the tiniest detail.” Despite its artifice, in many ways Voyage in Time is that film. The story of artistic synergy that is realized, in which alienation and aspiration are equally important, conveys a deeply humanist vision of the end of the 20th century. In a poem composed for Tarkovsky during the shooting of Voyage in Time, Guerra writes, “But what we told each other / Is so light, it cannot be kept in.” Facets’ DVD lets us share in their mutual telling.
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If you seek additional information on Tarkofsky, the best source is a Canadian website, which not only contains selections of Tarkovsky’s writings and interviews, including his diaries, but also archives an international range of articles and commentaries translated into English. The publishers of this website also highlight one problem with the subtitling of Voyage in Time. They believe that Facets re-used a “draft” subtitle track, which contained some significant translation errors. A full list appears under the 24 October, 2004 entry on the News page. However, the stand-alone availability of this rarely seen film far outweighs any subtitling errors.