IN THE opinion of Ingmar Bergman, the Russian film maker Andrei Tarkovsky was the most important director of modern times. The Christian elements in his films were condemned in Soviet Russia and although he had a certain
reputation in the western world, he was often criticised for being obscure. Those that were open to his art and who watched his films in the 70's and 80's, shared in what he felt was must important in life, namely, "hope, faith, love and beauty".
Andrei Tarkovsky was born in a small village 60 miles north of Moscow. His ancestors were reputed to have been aristocrats from the Daghestan region beyond the Caucasus. In [954, a year after Stalin's death. the young Tarkovsky enrolled in the Moscow State Film School.
After his first feature film "Ivan's Childhood" (1962) the signs were there that a cinematic genius was in the making. The images were distinctly Tarkovsky, each one touched with the eye of a painter a cartload of apples wet with rain and gleaming in the sun, the movement of reeds in water. a stream flowing through birch forests. Clearly evident too, was his almost mystical love of nature, a feeling that he followed throughout his work, and which finally brought him side by side with a Christian view of life.
In 1966. under the watchful eye of the ever-suspicious Soviet censors. Tarkovsky made his great epic about the Russian medieval icon painter Andrei Roublev. The film is set in the dark ages and chronicles the life of the great painter in seven episodes, in which he battles to keep his religious faith in a world dominated by violence and ignorance.
Never before had cinema quite seen the like. All of Tarkovsky's talents came together the eye of the painter. the ear of the composer, the vision of the mystic and that particularly Russian sense of epic. The result was a film that
Andrei Tarkovsky was one of Russia's unsung heroes a director of genius and a Christian, as John Mitchell recalls
possessed a special kind of cinematic beauty. better suited to be watched in a cathedral than an Odeon.
As Tarkovsky's camera moves across the medieval Russian landscape, the images seem to be imbued with a mysterious life of their own. When they work best, as in the final episode of "Andrei Roublev" where a young boy casts a great bell for the Grand Duke, there is a feeling of great gracefulness.
The textures and compositions are reminiscent of Breughel and da Vinci, and the effect is similar to listening to a piece of great music, both emotional and sublime. For Tarkovsky, and for the receptive viewer. cinema had become a transcendent experience.
Tarkovsky felt that this century, like Roublev's, represents a spiritual dark age, an age when the message of Christ is not heard. In his book Sculpting in Time he said: "In today's world, which leans so heavily towards the material and the technological. the Church shows no signs of being able to address the balance with a call to spiritual awakening. In this situation it seems to me that art is called to express the absolute freedom of man's spiritual potential" (1986).
For Tarkovsky then, the true artist is a kind of secular priest whose aim is to create works of art in order to "prepare a person for death. to plough and harrow his soul. rendering it capable of turning to good".
His next three feature films "Solaris" (1972), "Mirror"
(1974) and "Stalker" (1979) were made in Russia. In all
three there is a sense of searching, both in a personal sense ("Mirror" for example is essentially autobiographical) and in a universal sense ("Stalker" deals with the themes of hope and faith in a modem age).
Many critics found these films obscure or self-indulgent, but Tarkovsky had little time for the opinions of critics, whom he felt to be too "clever" to understand his films.
He always felt that children understood his work best and he wanted the viewer to watch his films almost without thinking, as one may watch scenery passing from the window of a moving train.
By the mid-1980's the Soviet authorities, angered by the Christian implications in his films, forced Tarkovsky to leave Russia. In his last two films "Nostalgia" made in Italy and "The Sacrifice" made in Sweden it is clear that he had increasingly come to believe in the Christian message, particularly with its emphasis on sacrificial love.
The most notable of these films is "Nostalgia", in which Domenico, a kind of holy fool, sacrifices himself for the world. His example rekindles the faith of an intellectual poet (Gorchakov) who tries to follow his example.
Like Dostoevsky. Tarkovsky saw that the fools of this world are closer to saints than the civilised and the respectable. This, Tarkovsky felt, was not recognised in a living sense by the (Christian) Church which he saw "only as a kind of appendage copying or even caricaturing the social institutions by which our everyday life is organised".
Tarkovsky remained deeply homesick for Russia. He died of cancer not long after he made his last film, "The Sacrifice" (1986).
Some of his films, including "Andrei Roulev" and "Nostalgia". are available on video.
THE Vatican Library contains the richest collection of western manuscripts and early printed books in the world. Founded in the 15th century, it became one of the central institutions of Italian Renaissance culture. The above illustration from a collection in the library entitled Orations
and Letters to Christian Princes Against the Turks depicts Churchmen attempting to persuade one of the temporal powers to join a crusade to recapture Constantinople (from Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture edited by Anthony Grafton, Yale University Press, £40)