Andrei Tarkovsky and the Spirit of Orthodoxy

An artist who has no faith is like a painter who was born blind.

Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Rublev (1966)

My goal in this post is simply to remind you that Andrei Tarkovsky exists, that he made films, and that he, more than any other filmmaker, embodied the spirit of Orthodox Christianity—not only in Andrei Rublev (1966), his sweeping portrait of the fifteenth-century Russian saint and icon painter, but in all his films. As my priest once told me, Tarkovsky brought an Orthodox monk’s discipline and asceticism to his craft.

I follow far too many Andrei Tarkovsky accounts on social media, and I frequently encounter quotes that are deeply moving and that speak to the condition of the Orthodox Russian soul. Many of these quotes read as if they were the sayings of some Orthodox saint. I’ve started collecting Tarkovsky quotes, and I include some below.

Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual.

My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware the beauty is summoning him.

Art is realistic when it strives to express an ethical ideal. Realism is striving for truth, and truth is always beautiful. Here the aesthetic coincides with the ethical.

Only one journey is possible : the journey within. We don’t learn a whole lot from dashing about on the surface of the Earth. Neither do I believe that one travels so as to eventually return. Man can never reach back to the point of origin, because he has changed in the process. And, of course, we cannot escape from ourselves ; what we are, we carry with us. We carry with us the dwelling place of our soul, like the turtle carries its shell. A journey through all the countries of the world would be a mere symbolic journey. Whatever place one arrives at, it is still one’s own soul that one is searching for.

We have forgotten to observe. Instead of observing, we do things according to patterns.

What moved me was the theme of the harmony which is born only of sacrifice, the twofold experience of love. It’s not a question of mutual love: what nobody seems to understand is that love can only be one-sided, that no other love exists, that in any other form it is not love. If it involves less than total giving, it is not love. It is impotent….

What is art? … Like a declaration of love: the consciousness of our dependence on each other. A confession. An unconscious act that nonetheless reflects the true meaning of life—love and sacrifice.

Some sort of pressure must exist; the artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.

“Man is born unto the trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” In other words suffering is germane to our existence; indeed, how without it, should we be able to “fly upwards.”

A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.

Stalker (1979)

The Stalker seems to be weak, but essentially it is he who is invincible because of his faith and his will to serve others.

Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win

 I feel that the sounds of this world are so beautiful in themselves that if only we could listen to them properly, cinema would have no need for music at all.

We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.

Unlike all the other art forms, film is able to seize and render the passage of time, to stop it, almost to possess it in infinity. I’d say that film is the sculpting of time.

If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.

Never try to convey your idea to the audience – it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.

My purpose is to make films that will help people to live, even if they sometimes cause unhappiness.

If you look for a meaning, you’ll miss everything that happens.

I simply cannot believe that an artist can ever work only for the sake of ‘self-expression.’ Self-expression if meaningless unless it meets with a response. For the sake of creating a spiritual bond with others it can only be an agonizing process, one that involves no practical gain: ultimately it is an act of sacrifice. But surely it cannot be worth the effort merely for the sake of hearing one’s own echo?

Nostalghia (1983)

Modern mass culture, aimed at the “consumer,” the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.

Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God?

It is obvious that art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all. We should long ago have become angels had we been capable of paying attention to the experience of art, and allowing ourselves to be changed in accordance with the ideals it expresses. Art only has the capacity, through shock and catharsis, to make the human soul receptive to good. It’s ridiculous to imagine that people can be taught to be good…Art can only give food – a jolt – the occasion – for psychical experience.

…art must must carry man’s craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist’s version, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition – otherwise life becomes impossible! Art symbolises the meaning of our existence.

Man has, since the Enlightenment, dealt with things he should have ignored.

My encounter with another world and another culture and the beginnings of an attachment to them had set up an irritation, barely perceptible but incurable-rather like unrequited love, like a symptom of the hopelessness of trying to grasp what is boundless, or unite what cannot be joined; a reminder of how finite, how curtailed, our experience on earth must be.

I think a person needs to learn from childhood to find himself alone. It means to not be bored when you’re by yourself, because a person who finds himself bored when alone –as it seems to me– is in danger.

The Sacrifice (1986)

All of us are infected today with an extraordinary egoism. And that is not freedom; freedom means learning to demand only of oneself, not of life and others, and knowing how to give: sacrifice in the name of love.

History is not Time; nor is evolution. They are both consequences. Time is a state: the flame in which there lives the salamander of the human soul.

In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight, only in its recollection.

Being silent for a while is good. Words can’t really express a person’s emotions.

The meaning of religious truth is hope.

Last year, the Criterion Collection published five short essays on five different shots from Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. I recommend the essays strongly, to get a sense of who Tarkovsky was, how he worked, and how he affected other artists.

Andrei Tarkovsky died of brain cancer in 1986, four days after Christmas. His last film, The Sacrifice, was filmed after he received his terminal diagnosis. His diaries from that period were published in Russia and entitled Martyrology.

Andrei Tarkovsky and his son.

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