Saturday 4 September 2021

The Mirror (Zerkalo) (1974)



This is, once again, one of those situations where I feel like a plebeian idiot. I am so confused having watched “Mirror” and I have very little idea what it is I have just been watching. There was some extra material to the movie including a scholar analyzing the movie and I got just as little from that. Clearly, I am an idiot and not at all the target audience.

What is going on here? Well, the structure of the movie is a stream of consciousness rather than a plot. In fact, there is no plot as far as I can tell. We get a number of settings spread out in time and often we are reverting to those settings. Some are fairly easy to place, there is something in the thirties or forties taking place in rural Russia and some “modern” (1970’ies) scenes, presumably in Moscow. Some scenes are dream sequences identified as such by being in black and white and some scenes I just cannot place: dream or reality? Present or past? It is not helping that the same actors seem to have multiple roles and there is a strange blur in time.

I also got that Tarkovsky plays a significant role in the movie. Sometimes we see things from his point of view as if all this is taking place in the mind of Tarkovsky himself. Following that thought, the child in the “past” sequences is likely himself and the woman his mother, who incidentally is also his wife in present time. There is also a boy, Ignat, in the present scenes with an uncertain function.

Another dominant feature is the pervading sense of gloom. The score is beautiful and range from funeral music to grand, melancholic drama, always with a slant of sadness. It is the most accessible element of the movie and the one thing I liked about it. Whether it is a personal doom, a memory of loss or something larger I do not know, but if this is somehow meant to describe Russia, I am starting to understand why they need a lot of vodka.

This is as much as I can describe this movie. As I have already indicated I have no idea what is going on, so I suspect that it is a movie that require an analysis, to have a key to unlock it. That is sometimes fun, but in this case it is as if the movie is trying to avoid my attention. I am constantly drawn away rather than into the movie. I am simply not interested enough to make that extra effort to understand it and as a result it becomes just random, incoherent pictures.

And that places me in the group on plebeian idiots and not among movie scholars. “Sight and Sound” rank it as the 9th greatest movie of all time, and it has a 9.2 score on Rotten Tomatoes. Apparently, this is a really great movie. Well, maybe I like my movies just a tad more accessible.



  1. You and me, both. I have no idea what this movie intended. I should probably watch it again, but I don't enjoy being made to feel dumb.

    1. Happy I am not alone. I have to read your review, that should be interesting reading.

  2. Mirror is a watershed moment for me in terms of how I eventually came to feel about Tarkovsky as a director. Is the movie rather inaccessible? Yes. Is that kinda the point? Also yes. Now, I don't want to insinuate that Tarkovsky deliberately made this as obfuscating as he could so that he could feel superior to those who don't "get it", but rather that he wanted to tackle a very unquantifiable topic in a medium that is by nature very quantifiable: you have a definite image imprinted on a strip of film, that you can hold in your hand. How, then, to use cinema as a medium to explore the inner contents of a single mind (one that is largely autobiographical, as you picked up on), in all it's haziness and interconnectivity, and especially given how subjective memories themselves can be? The inside of a mind very rarely has a straight narrative to it, and it felt to me like Tarkovsky wanted, more than anything else, to get this across as best he could; that the film is pseudo-autobiographical is his way of making it personal to himself as well, almost a self-therapy or experiment in coming to terms with his past, family, and life in the Soviet Union.

    One thing I've learned during my 1001 quest and the Best Picture odyssey is that how one approaches a film, even without conscious knowledge of doing so, has a great effect on how that film is received. Mirror is not a film to be approached as if it has a straight narrative or an 'answer' to be 'unlocked'; these things are finite and quantifiable. I loved Mirror to a great extent, to where I actually sought out and read parts of Tarkovsky's book and self-treatise on his cinematic method, Sculpting in Time. Tarkovsky was never interested in making straight stories on film; he wanted to explore the nature of it, and how the nature of it could be used to explore concepts of reality like time and thought and memory. To go into Mirror trying to figure it out so that there is a definite answer you can grasp and hold onto at the end of it is not the right approach; as cliche as the saying is, it's not about the destination, but the journey. Tarkovsky doesn't want you to think really hard to arrive at an end goal and then wipe your hands and be done with it as much as he wants you just to be able to start thinking, and perhaps see where it takes you.

    I was thrilled when I saw that Criterion had picked this one up, and I pre-ordered the Blu-ray as soon as I found out. To quote my own review of it: "There is absolutely no denying that I have just seen a masterpiece; it is just what kind of masterpiece it is that I will have to spend some time on, and even perhaps another viewing or two, which I wouldn’t begrudge in the slightest."

    1. I do respect it when somebody likes or dislikes a movie differently from myself. We all see different things in the movies and that is great. The Mirror is clearly one of the more polarizing movies.
      From my point of view I am not certain I agree when you say that this is a movie that does not require a key. It is likely that many of the scenes are supposed to resonate with some unconscious understanding so that you understand without making the effort, but my claim persists that without the key to parse the going-ons on the screen, the viewer is lost.
      A good example is Mulholland Drive. At face value this movie makes no sense at all, but when you are offered the key that this is a critique of Christian dogma, everything falls into place.
      I had hoped that at least the extra-material would offer me such a key to let me parse the movie, but none was offered. None that I understood at least. And that is why I arrive at the conclusion that I am simply not bright enough to watch this movie.
      I do not expect a straight story, Tarkovsky always have more on the agenda than telling a story, but I do expect to at least have some idea of what just happened.

    2. That's definitely more understandable - I probably got the wrong idea when you used the word 'key', as if there was a definite solution to the whole thing locked away in the box of the movie that one was trying to puzzle open, like the answer of who is the culprit in a whodunit, which as I tried to lay out is not the approach to a movie like Mirror. You used the word 'key' where I would've used the word 'context', and yes, a lot of Mirror involves looking at it through the context of Soviet history and the Soviet way of life and thinking. That and approaching it as a non-linear construction of how a human mind looks back on one's own life is probably the 'key' you were looking for but didn't have.

      And in all fairness, even with said key, the film is still very difficult to parse; it was received with mostly confusion upon release in Russia, and it was only over time that the film's adherents began to grow and expand the praise the film would get.

    3. No worries, no criticism was intended.
      It is likely you have to have been there, at that time to really understand it.