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Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky died of cancer outside the Soviet Union in 1986. The Soviet authorities had denied visas for other family members to visit him until he was on his deathbed. French filmmaker Chris Marker's One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich begins with Tarkovsky's mother, and his son Andrei Jr. arriving to see him after a separation of ten years. Made for the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps, the hour-long docu is a penetrating look at the enigmatic director that uses a wealth of film clips to analyze his life's work. Marker's insights reveal the fascinating relationship between the 'Andrei Arsenevich' and his films.
The docu uses video footage of Tarkovsky receiving his final guests, and watching a videotape assembly of his final film The Sacrifice with his cameraman Sven Nykvist. The Swedish cameraman describes the color timing choices he intends to apply to the release prints. Marker then takes us back a season or two to the Swedish set of The Sacrifice to show the filming of an elaborate one-take shot. A group of people reacting to a house burning down, a shot requiring a number of complex actor and camera moves as the house burns in real time. Six or seven languages are spoken on the set, with interpreters working overtime. Tarkovsky and Nykvist sometimes communicate with one another in Italian, as both men had made films with Italian crews.
We're accustomed to Chris Marker's free-form experimental documentaries. One Day stays on task to honor the filmmaker and connect his personality to the themes of his movies. Marker belabors no points while presenting arguments that bring life to "academic" cinema analysis. Tarkovsky's heroes are always trying to cross barriers, often represented as physical journeys. When Marker juxtaposes images of various Tarkovsky characters regarding artwork (a consistent theme) or mirrors, the filmmaker's larger themes come into focus. Marker even shows some weird imagistic coincidences that give Tarkovsky's seven-film feature career an even greater sense of cohesion. At one point a fortune-teller told the director that he would make only seven films ... but as someone later assured Tarkovsky, they're all good films.
Marker shows the director looking wan in his hospice bed but behaving as animated as he can for his guests. We see images of his funeral and an evasive comment by another Russian artist that the Soviet Union appreciated him. Marker conveys strongly Tarkovsky's desire for filmmaking to become as respected as the other arts.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich is the title feature but Icarus Films' disc also includes two lengthy Russian documentaries recommended by Chris Marker. One is a humanistic study and another a sophisticated look at political life in Russia today.
In the Dark (V temnote) (2004) is an absorbing character study that becomes an allegory for life in the Soviet Union. In a Moscow housing block lives a blind man; we see him weaving net shopping bags from balls of string. His only companion is a mischievous white cat. It lounges on shelves, tosses his papers every which way and frequently tangles up his stock of string-balls. The old man spends most of his time quietly cursing the cat and groping about for his scattered tools. He then goes outside, interacts with an elderly, affectionate neighbor (who sings him a song) and then tries to give away his bags on a walkway between the housing buildings. He has no takers -- everybody uses plastic bags. Passersby that don't ignore him outright tell him that his bags are no longer needed. But he keeps making them.
Filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy appears once or twice in the shot, demonstrating that the old man is an actual relative and that nothing in the show is faked. We don't know if the man's situation is typical but the film makes a potent statement about a society that discards people considered unproductive.
The third docu is Marina Goldovskaya's impressive Three Songs about Motherland (2008) a portrait of present-day Russia that examines attitudes toward its violent history. Elena Kamburova sings three very mellow songs, including one with very sad lyrics about hardships under Stalin's regime. The film has three distinct sections, each about a city. Elderly residents of the far east industrial outpost Komsomolsk-on-Amur talk about being relocated as young people in the 1930s, stripped of their rights and forced to build the city while living in mud huts. Some denounce the mysterious arrests and killings of the most inspiring local leaders, while others discount the Stalinist terror with safe platitudes -- a successful society can't make things perfect for everybody. The two opinions converge in their love of Communism and pride for their contribution to the WW2 effort -- the city turned out fighter aircraft.
The second story thread returns to Moscow to consider the murder of the outspoken journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, who persisted in reporting the cruel truth about slaughter in the ongoing Chechen uprising. We see the reporter in her home making small talk with her pet bird and pointedly remarking that she has no interest in leaving the country, even though most of her professional colleagues see her as marked for death. Vladimir Putin is seen in a news blip after her assassination. He doesn't address the killing, but simply says, "everyone knows that her opinions had no effect."
The third section goes to the relatively new community Khanty-Mansijsk, a capitalist oil boomtown. It looks as though the camera is going to follow an aide of a local politician until the man takes over the tour personally, like an American Chamber of Commerce booster but with less finesse. A woman is entreated to ride a horse for the docu camera, and the man proudly shows the building of a new sports center. Local interviewees are excited that the town's birth rate is so high, an indicator of a brighter future. Other voices say that gangsters now run the area and that basic services are corrupt. A ten-ruble bribe is standard with policemen.
Ms. Goldovskaya is presently teaching at UCLA. Her new docu The Bitter Taste of Freedom extends her examination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Her website features an interesting film clip montage.
Icarus Films' DVD of One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich is a good encoding of a film made from several sources, including what looks like old Betacam video for the hospital scenes with Tarkovsky. The film clips are adequate in quality and letterboxed where possible. The other two shows appear to be video based and look quite good for a documentary sourced from foreign elements intended for television broadcast.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich rates:
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