When the first lockdown was lifted, I finally saw my son. He had been working as a filmmaker in the United States. I was now in the city, in an apartment where I had access to Netflix. I had just begun a binge of Breaking Bad; all my friends were right, I couldn’t stop watching. My son pointed out to me how almost all popular American films are a variation on the redemption story. Usually they take a simplistic form: flawed protagonist is wronged and must combat evil to allow good or truth or love to prevail, thereby redeeming the cosmic order and/or his or her own flaws. With regard to Breaking Bad, the form is slightly more nuanced; the plot is driven by the underlying question: “How bad does Walter White have to get before he’s irredeemable?”
We went down a mental list of important films and tried to identify the elements of redemption. With some, like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the only apparent redemption is a somewhat cynical one that comes from being funny: entertainment saves. But for me, this works only if the story is told well enough and undermines my initial premises with respect to the economy of redemption.
But what about the Europeans? In the great European films, one rarely finds any obvious good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy. Fellini’ 8 ½, for example, is primarily about nostalgia, self-doubt. There’s no overt quest for vengeance or rectification. The most prevalent conflicts involve the self versus itself.
Tarkovsky became obsessed with nostalgia to the point of making Nostalghia. Set in Italy, we find a Russian writer researching an 18th century Russian composer who had lived Italy and committed suicide after returning to his homeland. The writer is surrounded by beauty in the landscape, beauty in the architecture. He is accompanied by a beautiful red-headed Italian woman who translates for him and takes offense at his not responding to her desire for more intimacy. But the writer is overwhelmed by his memory, his nostalgia.
Before Nostalghia, Tarkovsky made Mirror, perhaps his most experimental film in terms of narrative structure. Mirror is a deep-dive into the director’s mind, an autobiographical exposition of memory’s effect on the aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities of this ambitious son of a poet. (Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky, was a well-known Russian poet and a huge influence on the director’s art, to the extent that Mirror has his father’s verse scattered throughout, read by the poet himself.)
In these two films we see a very nuanced groping for redemption; in the European cinematic fashion, yes — but redemption nonetheless. Salvation — whatever that means — is tackled by way of the mind and memory. Yet this approach to salvation has very deep roots. They go as far back as Augustine, especially Book Ten of his Confessions. Even further if one delves into Plato’s influence on Augustine, particularly the notion of recollection: all truth exists “out there” in the Hyperuranion, and we merely re-member or re-collect it.
In Augustine’s Confessions — that groundbreaking and revolutionary literary exploration of “the self” — there is a stark shift from autobiographical spiritual self-recrimination to philosophical musing that occurs in Book Ten. Augustine plumbs the wonder and mystery of memory. “Great is this power of memory, exceedingly great, O my God — an inner chamber large and boundless!” (Book 10, chap. 8) He analyzes its mechanism and fathoms the depths of the mind upon which it is contingent. Ultimately, he links that contingency to God, or an analogical understanding of the Mind of God, which today might be called Supreme Absolute Consciousness. “You abide in my memory; and there do I find You whenever I call You to remembrance, and delight in You.” (Book 10, chap. 24)
So in Augustine’s view, memory and its intricate relationship to mind could offer a viable path to redemption. “Great is the power of memory; very wonderful is it, O my God, a profound and infinite manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this I myself am.” (Book 10, chap. 17)
Of course, no artist can set out to depict a philosophical idea without running the risk of flattening his work with the heavy hammer of intellect. But Tarkovsky might be one of the rare artists whose virtuosity can handle such a hammer.
In La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, Fellini has the character played by Marcello Mastroianni wallow in his nostalgia and self-doubt amid a parade of beauty, humor, absurdity, and the self-effacement that buffers life’s psychic pains. Unlike Fellini, Tarkovsky takes nostalgia and gives it transcendent aspirations. In fact, his last two films, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, hinge, respectively, on the explicit attempt to redeem, to literally save, a man and the world from physical destruction.
Much earlier in his career, Tarkovsky’s treatment of redemption lay in the transcendent power of beauty itself. Andrei Rublev, for example, follows the eponymous icon painter who explicitly muses about the spiritual nature of art against the implicit background of the director’s quest for cinematic beauty. In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky writes: “When I speak of the aspiration towards the beautiful, of the ideal as the ultimate aim of art, which grows from a yearning for that ideal, I am not for a moment suggesting that art should shun the ‘dirt’ of the world. On the contrary! The artistic image is always a metonym, where one thing is substituted for another, the smaller for the greater. To tell of what is living, the artist uses something dead; to speak of the infinite, he shows the finite. Substitution … the infinite cannot be made into matter, but it is possible to create an illusion of the infinite: the image.”
From beauty’s transcendent power, Tarkovsky extrapolates, at least for himself, the very meaning of life, the living God residing in his mind and projected to other minds through his prodigious talent. He states it in no uncertain terms: “In any case it is perfectly clear that the goal of all art — unless of course it is aimed at the ‘consumer,’ like a saleable commodity — is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.” (Sculpting in Time)
And, of course, any insight into the meaning of existence is a significant step toward redemption.
Photography: a cadre from A. Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” (1979; source).