The spiritual creativity – art in the works of A. Tarkovskij, S. Paradzanov and A. Sokurov Dec17

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The spiritual creativity – art in the works of A. Tarkovskij, S. Paradzanov and A. Sokurov

Carlo Zivoli

According to Enzo Bianchi, prior of the Monastic Community of Bose (Piemonte, Italy), nothing of what is «authentically human» can be unrelated to the believer. Obviously, taking for granted a wide notion of the believer, we are still to define what is «authentically human». I could sound simplistic but I want to remind you that whenever, within one’s «faith», people have tried to define metaphysical realities in a too strict way they have ended up, I don’t know why, killing each other, not necessarily with arms but more often with words.
This introduction is in order to say (still according to Enzo Bianchi) that the deepest realities are often more intelligible through poetry and, I would add, through art than through dogmatics, without despising its function in service of truth.
On this subject the religious Russian thought has left us some interesting pages in the short essay «Ikonostas» by Pavel Florenskij. He says that «the authentic artist doesn’t want his thing at any cost but wants the beauty, the objective beauty, i.e. the artistic shape of things’ inner truth. Moreover he usually doesn’t care of miserable and idle questions, whether he is the first or the hundredth person who talks about the truth. Provided it is the truth, the work’s value is guaranteed» [«Le porte regali – Saggio sull’icona», Milano,1977, page 80]. This seems to me a good definition of something that holds above all the ascetic effort to be «authentically human».
But this is still a beautiful theory, it sounds a bit of abstractness. Florenskij himself doesn’t ignore, referring to iconography art, that it exists «the temptation of mistaking as spirituality and as spiritual images the reveries that surround, confuse and seduce the soul because they show the way towards the other world. They are the spirits of this century that try to hold the conscience in their world» [«Le porte regali – Saggio sull’icona», cit., page 36].
Gregorio of Nissa, in his «Life of Moses», admirably synthesizes how man looking for truth lives the experience of interior purification through his climb of the Mount Sinai. Giovanni Climaco, himself, became famous for a single but fundamental work «The Paradise stair» where he shows that the way of good but not «authentically human» intentions is paved with traps.
Cinema is maybe the contemporary form of art that, more than others, has faced these problems. And also in this case Russia has much to teach to the so-called Western cultural world. Briefly I will try to explain how these spiritual tensions have marked the works, lives and ideas of three great authors: Andrej Tarkovskij, Sergej Paradzanov and Aleksandr Sokurov.
Among them the best known is probably Andrej Tarkovskij, who thinks that «art exists and shows its essence where it exists that eternal and insatiable nostalgia of spirituality, of the ideals, which gathers men» around it [this and the following quotations are taken from «Scolpire il tempo», Milano, 1988, Italian translation of «Sapetschatljonnoje Wremja», 1986]. He warns the reader against some expressions of contemporary art that «abandon the research of life meaning to affirm the independent value of man».
The typical hero of Tarkovskij’s artistic vision Andrej Rublev is, the icon painter: Rublev’s life on screened by Tarkovskij during the ‘60s «is the story of a taught conception, that after being burnt in the atmosphere of the living reality, resurrects from ashes which has been as a totally new truth, just revealed».
Rublev is educated in the monastery of the Holy Trinity and of Saint Serge under Sergij Radonezskij guidance: he follows the fundamental motto of love, union and fraternity which inspired unification and centralization against the cruelty of the Tartar-Mongol power. After leaving the monastery Rublev discovers the tragic reality that surrounds him: his simply theoretic education collapses due to the brutality of the surrounding world.
He loses his «faith in his idea of good in the reality» and only in the final half an hour of the film, after the famous sequence of the bell’s fusion, he conquers at last the balance of the great artist «after passing through sufferance’s circles and becoming part of his people’s destiny». In the boy who did successfully the fusion of the giant bell also without knowing the secret that father prematurely dead didn’t transmit him, Rublev sees the living icon of man touched by grace, man who experiments his salvation in interior assurance on something superior.
According to Marko Ivan Rupnik it is a peculiar matter of «Sofia which opens on eternal memory and initiates into her» [«La Sofia come memoria creativa da Solov’ev a Tarkovskij», in «Dalla Sofia al New Age», Roma, 1995, page 92].
Here you can see how the spiritual relationship between two artists is fundamental for Rublev’ future works in a new light of truth. Also in Tarkovskij’s personal experience «the spiritual contact among the members of his artistic group was extraordinarily important» in all his works. In his opinion «film work (exactly like any other creative activity) must obey first of all to interior needs, and not to extrinsic needs – whether disciplinar or productive necessity – that in fact hinder the work rhythm, if you rely only on them». Film art can then really become a «sculpture in time», where «time is considered in its concrete and indissoluble link with the essence of reality that surrounds us every day and every hour […] from “length of time”, that includes the huge and inarticulate sum of the life facts, [the filmmaker] cuts out and gets away what doesn’t need».
Sergej Paradzanov’s artistic experience, though much different for formal result, is however significant for our discussion. His life tells us more than his works. Armenian by birth, deeply rooted into the rural culture and traditions of Caucasian and Ukraine people, he spent many years of his life in prison for his sexual inclinations (he talks about himself as follows «the only Sovietic director who was three time in prison […] under Stalin, then under KGB, and finally under Breznev and Andropov») [this and next quotations are taken from Michele Picchi, «Sergej Paradzanov», Rome, 1994].
However in his opinion this experience was not completely negative: «through all those pains, that I don’t consider at all a defeat or a tragedy (they were the best years of my life), I have become an artist».
Paradzanov, as incredibly active and prolific intellectual, after the first films produced for the Soviet propaganda, attracted the international attention first with «Forgotten ancestors’ shadow» («Teni zabytych predkov», 1964) and later with his masterpiece «Sayat Nova» (1968), biography of Aruthin Sayadin, an Armenian poet of the 18th century who spent most of his life in Tiflis (today Tbilisi) as a court singer of the Georgian king.
The film synthesizes for the first time (and unfortunately one of the last) the personal and visionary style of its author: «Sayat Nova is different from the previous films – he explains – because and I reflected a lot on the Armenian religious miniatures, full of spirituality and poetry. They excited me a extraordinary veneration feeling». The stylish code of the movie you can find in apparently static scenes, paintings, where «persons never speak each other and give the impression to be deaf and dumb».
Paradzanov’s artistic evolution seems to follow a need that Tarkovskij would call «interior»: much different from the turbulent movie-camera called «psychopathic» from the photography director Jurij Il’enko in «Forgotten ancestors’ shadow». «In my opinion – states still the director – I have always thought that dynamism was false and hindered, instead of promoting, the characters’ passions […] I know that dynamic cinema is considered the basis of cinema thinking and that static composition could seem like weak or tired imagination. But for me it is a real passion: creating motion inside static images».
It is however very interesting to notice how such a filmmaker as Paradzanov, even though he is not a declared believer, reaches through his personal evolution the artistic tops wished by Florenskij. The artistic ascesis as a mystic experience can be included in the «authentically human» that should concern any would be believer.
Aleksandr Sokurov’s artistic evolution can bring us to a conclusion. He was a director admired by Tarkovskij himself and people say that his films must not be watched but contemplated. In particular his «Mother and son» («Mat’ i syn», 1997) has been greatly praised by the international critics: they have even said that «he ventures in a cinema that excels Bresson» [Tullio Kezich, “Corriere della Sera”, 18/07/98].
During the last years of his life, spent in exile, Tarkovskij tried at any cost to help his young colleague Sokurov, who had to fight against the Soviet regime that considered him as a subversive.
The first Sokurov’s films were projected first in his own country and then, only from 1986, in the main international festivals. More than eight years had passed since his first work «The solitary voice of man» that, when he was only 27 years old, was rejected in 1978 like final essay at the Cinema School in Moscow.
Nowadays Sokurov’s filmography is made up of twenty-seven works equally subdivided in feature films, short films, TV-movies and documentaries. This unusual richness can be explained, according to the critics, also thank to the resistance period. Which transformed his personality and gave him a working method that could survive in any living condition.
Among his works it is particularly important to recall the documentary series called «Elegies». They are thorough portraits of Russian personalities, such as the directors Elem Klimov and Tarkovskij or the former president Boris Eltsin.
In an interview Sokurov referring to «Mother and son» says that he was inspired by Caspar David Friedrich, the latter was a German painter, that was consider one of the most important representatives of romantic painting in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century. In particular he talks about a painting of 1809 called «Monk at the sea-shore» where the human presence, pointed out in the title, is bewildered lost in front of the immensity of the natural elements that mix each other getting dark and mingled.
This particular film style creates an anti-naturalistic and abstract effect which highlights in a more dramatic and familiar way the feelings of the two protagonists and their silent but troubled outburst.
This style is also influenced by the liturgical times of Eastern Christian spirituality, where man doesn’t consider his God research in an ascending way (i.e. from himself to God), but vice versa he lets the Divine visit him in a descending movement. In this way, God moulds him according to His times which are not the human ones.
The artistic evolutions of these three authors are, on my opinion, wonderful and real examples of the «authentically human» mentioned at the beginning of my discussion. It is vital to discover and appreciate the «ascesis» of man who, consciously or not, feels irresistibly attracted by truth.
I conclude by recalling with Pavel Florenskij’s words: «intuition and discussiveness do not lead to the knowledge of Truth: it rises in the soul after a free revelation of three-ipostatic Truth itself, after a nice visit of the Holy Spirit to the soul […] the Holy Fathers didn’t call ascesis neither science nor moral work but art or mastery, an activity designed to contemplate the light without sunset through the Holy Spirit […] the distinctive feature of the saints is not at all goodness, that can be present also in sensual people and big sinners, but spiritual beauty, the blinding beauty of the shining and light–hurting person, which is absolutely inaccessible to the sensual and rough man» [«La luce della verità», in «Il cuore cherubico – Scritti teologici e mistici», Casale Monferrato (Al), 1999, pages 232-237].
And speaking of the role that art images should have in dogmatics Florenskij says: «among the philosophical demonstrations of God existence the most convincing seems to be one that you cannot fin in manuals: it can be expressed through the following syllogism: “Rublev’s Trinity exists, therefore God exists”» [«Le porte regali – Saggio sull’icona», cit., page 64].