When Andrei Tarkovsky died in 1986, shortly
after finishing his post-apocalyptic fantasy "The Sacrifice,"
he left behind a sturdy body of work that encompassed just seven
feature films over a quarter-century.
Aficionados of the director included Ingmar Bergman, who himself towers over all other filmmakers of the past half-century, and who once said that Tarkovsky was "the greatest." Since Tarkovsky’s films are so rarely screened, most people haven’t been able to take a look for themselves. But, thanks to Ocularis at the Galapagos Art Space - whose Sunday film series includes two showings of Tarkovsky’s debut feature, 1962’s "My Name Is Ivan," on Oct. 7 at 7 pm and 9:30 pm - Brooklyn film lovers will get the chance to see for themselves just what to make of this intensely personal, profoundly Russian artist.
Many of our best movie directors began with a splash, then found it difficult to sustain the energy of their initial triumph: Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane" spring immediately to mind. But Tarkovsky, who started out as many do - with a somewhat autobiographical story - right from the beginning was able to plant the seeds of a more complex, even occasionally opaque style, that served him well for the next 25 years.
The Ivan of the movie’s title is a young boy, no more than 12 years old, who has been orphaned by the harshness and unrelenting grimness of World War II. Throughout a taut and tense 90 minutes, Ivan’s childhood is shown to be one of juxtaposition: here’s an immature kid who can act as a ruthless spy when called upon.
Tarkovsky’s use of stark black-and-white and several dream sequences and flashbacks create more contrasts: between the bleak, drained light and dark, and between the everyday reality of survival and the innocence of happier times. For a first feature, "My Name Is Ivan" is masterly, from Tarkovsky’s evocative choice of music and his precise editing to the extraordinarily moving performance he coaxes out of the brilliant young actor, Kolya Burlayev.
"My Name Is Ivan," of course, ends tragically, and the final frames of Ivan’s exhilaration are mercilessly cut short by the director. But throughout his career, Tarkovsky never flinched when confronted with showing mankind in all its flawed horribleness, as his six other features demonstrate. His very next film, the epic biography "Andrei Rubelev" (1966), was censored by the Soviets because it dared to present a multi-layered portrait of the great medieval Russian painter rather than the one-note political propaganda picture the authorities wanted.
His penultimate film, "Nostalghia" (1983), was an exploration of an expatriate’s soul - like Tarkovsky himself (who left Russia in the early 1980s after realizing he would never be allowed the artistic freedom he craved) - the movie’s protagonist lived outside Russia but yearned for the home to which he could never return.
Tarkovsky’s final film, "The Sacrifice" (1986), may have ended up preachy and often stultifyingly slow - it shows us the end of the world through the eyes of a family that’s already been mentally traumatized by simply living together - yet it’s filled with images of shattering beauty and rapturous spiritual affirmation.
If Tarkovsky doesn’t become popular outside of narrow film circles through such majestic works as "My Name Is Ivan" and "Andrei Rubelev," perhaps his name will be made more recognizable through the announced remake of his towering sci-fi epic "Solaris" (1971). That crass populist director James ("Titanic") Cameron is supposedly giving it a go, but remaking "Solaris" is a folly along the lines of remaking "2001": they are singular films of ideas, of thought and sophistication and, yes, genius, not just gadget-laden space operas, which is Cameron’s usual modus operandi.
"My Name Is Ivan," at least, will never be remade; as most great films do, it speaks a language unto itself, but it does so with a clarity that viewers of any stripe will understand.
"My Name Is Ivan" will be screened on Oct. 7 at 7 pm and 9:30 pm at Galapagos Art and Performance Space, 70 North Sixth St. in Williamsburg. Admission is $6. For more information, visit www.ocularis.net on the Web or call (718) 388-8713.