At number 91 via San Niccolò in the elegant, almost secretive Florentine neighbourhood of the same name, there is a plaque in Italian dedicated to one of the world’s greatest film directors. It tells us that the Russian “Andrei Tarkovsky, sublime director of a spiritual cinema in exile in Florence, spent the last years of his life in this house a guest and honorary citizen of the city of Florence”. Today, it is home to the Andrei Tarkovsky International Institute, which promotes Tarkovsky’s work by screening his films and those of his favourite directors, like Bresson and Bergman, and by holding conferences and seminars. It houses the rich and important archives of his papers, screenplays, film projects and, above all, his diaries full of personal and professional revelations. His photographic archive contains 5,000 photographs as well as Polaroids, many taken with a camera Michelangelo Antonioni gave him in the 1970s. It is also the Florentine home of his son Andrei, the custodian of his legacy.
Born on April 4, 1932 in Savrashye, a village on the Volga river, Andrei Tarkovsky was the son of acclaimed poet Arseny Tarkovsky and Maya Ivanovna Vishnyakova. He spent his childhood in Yuryevets, but after his father left the family when he was three, he moved with his mother and sister to Moscow. There he went to school, studied piano and took art classes. For several months between the end of 1947 and early 1948, he was hospitalised with tuberculosis. After graduating from high school, he studied Arabic at Moscow’s Oriental Institute, but dropped out to take part in a prospecting expedition in Siberia. After his return to Moscow, he enrolled at the Soviet State Film School (VGIK) during the modestly tolerant years of the Khrushchev Thaw. In 1957, Tarkovsky married classmate Irma Rausch, with whom he had a son, Arseny, born in 1962.
In 1960, Tarkovsky gained his diploma in directing for the short film “The Steamroller and the Violin”, for which he was awarded a coveted foreign prize. International fame soon followed with his first feature film, Ivan’s Childhood, which won the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. In 1970, he divorced his first wife and married actress Larissa Pavlovna Yegorkina, who gave birth to their son Andrei that same year.
The Khrushchev rule over, suspicion grew that his work was anti-Soviet and authorities began obstruction tactics against him. Bureaucratic hurdles were placed in his way when making and distributing his film Solaris (1972) and there were delays and difficulties with his last film made in the Soviet Union, Stalker (1979), which may have provoked the heart attack he suffered in April 1978.
In 1979, Tarkovsky came to Italy to shoot an hour-long TV documentary “Voyage in Time” in preparation for making his film Nostalghia (1983) which would be set in Tuscany’s Bagno Vignoni. He returned to Italy in 1980 to work on the script and began filming in 1982. He would never return home. This decision caused him great suffering because his son Andrei was still in Russia and was not allowed to leave the country, and because he missed his homeland terribly.
Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer during the filming of his last picture, The Sacrifice, in Sweden in 1985, Tarkovsky was treated in Paris, where Andrei was finally able to join him. He died on December 29, 1986 and is buried in the Russian Cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, a suburb south of Paris.
Although Tarkovsky’s multi-award winning artistic output was small because of his tragic death at just 54 years of age, what there is of it is intense, poignant and mesmerising. In fact, he only had time to make eight feature films, to produce three short films whilst still living in Russia, to write several screenplays and to direct, in 1965, a radio production of the short story “Turnabout” by William Faulkner, the play “Hamlet” for the Moscow stage in 1977 and the opera Boris Godunov in London in 1983. In addition, he wrote Sculpting in Time (1987), a book on the theory of film.
Themes frequently touched on in his films often had autobiographical undertones from his childhood, family and exile as well as the metaphysical in man’s struggles to believe and accept the idea of death and an impending apocalypse. His use of long, slow camera takes and exquisite symbolic images of things like dreams, reflections, running water, rain and fire created atmospheres of unique and haunting beauty.
So for some, Tarkovsky’s cinema is by no means easy to apprehend, but he never meant it to be. He believed that “cinema is an art form which involves a high degree of tension, which may not generally be comprehensible. It’s not that I don’t want to be understood, but I can’t, like Spielberg, say, make a film for the general public—I’d be mortified if I discovered I could. If you want to reach a general audience, you have to make films like Star Wars and Superman which have nothing to do with art. This doesn’t mean I treat the public like idiots, but I certainly don’t take pains to please them.” And we can only be glad he didn’t.