The final image of Moscow Elegy (Élégie de Moscou), Alexander Sokurov's 1987 tribute to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, is of a tree that Tarkovsky planted. It's a fitting way for this documentary to close, as the movie itself is the cinematic equivalent of that tree, the product of a seed one artist had sown, the fruit it produced being the inspiration of another.
Tarkovsky is famous for such films as Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker, though Moscow Elegy largely concerns itself with his later work, after he left Russia to film in Europe, drawing most heavily from Nostalghia and The Sacrifice. Sokurov is best known in the U.S. as the director of Russian Ark. The influence of his subject is most immediately evident in Sokurov's work in the patience the director shows. Tarkovsky never rushed a moment, he always let it play at its own pace, and in this filmed poem in the late movie maker's honor, Sokurov does the same, mainly working with on-set footage from movie shoots and extended scenes from those same films to create a tonal portrait of the legendary talent.
It's an interesting idea. Less biography, more homage. One director adopts the style of another to communicate to the audience the sensation of watching a movie by the subject of his portrait. I'm not sure it really works, however. It's one thing to employ distance and time to create a narrative that exploits the boundaries of both to submerge the audience in a completely unique storytelling environment, it's another to try for a similar effect with no narrative at all. Sokurov makes an attempt at building a structure out of his footage, arranging it mostly in chronology, beginning with Tarkovsky's move to Italy and early discussions about the film Nostalghia and ending with his funeral. There is one pit stop along the way for the death of Leonid Brezhnev, making a loose connection between the passage of that stage of Communism and Russia's loss of one of its greatest cinematic artists. Yet, I'm not sure what Sokurov intended for me to walk away with. As a Tarkovsky fan, I appreciated seeing the master at work, but I don't feel I learned very much about the man behind the artist. There is some biographical information given, such as family history, and Sokurov does shoot his own footage at various landmarks that played an important role in Tarkovsky's life, but it's only in small doses. Taking another approach and trying to put myself in the shoes of a Tarkovsky neophyte, I find little in Moscow Elegy that would compel anyone to seek out his films. The documentary stays too far away from the subject and doesn't engage the original material in any active way.
Moscow Elegy plays more like a personal research project than a full-fledged documentary. Either that, or a failed experiment. Tarkovsky enthusiasts will still want to give it a spin for its rare footage, but there's little else here to recommend it. It would have actually worked better as an extra on a DVD of an actual Andrei Tarkovsky movie than its own disc. That way the film might have served its purpose as a curious tribute without having to carry the weight of being the main attraction.
Alexander Sokurov's Moscow Elegy is composed from found footage that was originally shot in full frame. Given the rare nature of the source materials, a dilapidated image is to be expected, so the crackles and pops in the picture are the nature of the beast rather than the result of a lazy transfer. Go in knowing that, and all will be fine.
As with the picture, the sound on Moscow Elegy is entirely dependent on the original films. The track is multilingual, as Tarkovsky was working in Italy and Sweden. Sokurov actually translates any dialogue in a language other than Russian as Russian voiceover, with corresponding English subtitles for the English speaking viewer. There are also French, Spanish, and Italian subtitle options, or you can watch Moscow Elegy with none.
By way of a bonus, Moscow Elegy comes with a 12-page digital booklet accessed through your computer's DVD-Rom drive. Though there are menus for this booklet, to get it to open I couldn't use my PC's player, but rather opened Adobe Acrobat and used its "explore" function to find the document on the disc. There are English, Spanish, and French versions. The pdf contains a contemporary interview about the film with Alexander Sokurov, revealing that the movie was made a few short months after Tarkovsky's death, cut together in five days for a showing on the filmmaker's birthday. Other revelations: some of the footage was shot by Chris Marker (La Jetee), the initial reaction to Moscow Elegy was overwhelmingly negative, and the film was intended to capture his personal impressions of a friend while avoiding topics that might be construed as "indiscrete." In addition to the interview, there is a biography of Sokurov, including a complete filmography.
The pdf document can be printed out if you so choose.
If you enjoy the movies of Andrei Tarkovsky, than Alexander Sokurov's tribute, Moscow Elegy, should have enough unseen footage of the director at work for you to Rent It. If you're new to the man's films, it's best to start with his own work rather than this stylistic evocation of the same. Without foreknowledge of the material, there is little here that will engage you, and even a working idea of what Tarkovsky's filmmaking is like doesn't entirely save Moscow Elegy. More bonus feature than star attraction.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joï¿½lle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.