One might assume that an innovative, free-thinking filmmaker would have readily fled censorious Soviet Russia. Yet Andre Tarkovsky made only his final two films outside his native country, and he always brooded about his departure. On the Criterion Collection DVD of his sci-fi epic “Solaris,” star Natalya Bondarchuk says the director saluted the government for “letting me make my long, boring movies.” The 30th anni treatment of “Solaris” is never boring, but it neither is it short. Thankfully, the trance-inducing feature (shown in a striking restored print) comes with a second disc of invaluable extras, on which coherent dialogue is spoken.
With the distilled, George Clooney-ized remake still in theaters, “Solaris” deserves another look. Comparisons to the Steven Soderbergh version, however, seem completely inapt. Tarkovsky’s is an hour longer, more rigorously philosophical and has a visual sensibility that more skillfully combines the earthly and the celestial.
Oft-made comparisons to “2001: A Space Odyssey” are also misguided, a lengthy interview with Vadim Yusov reveals. The DP who also shot Tarkovsky’s Cannes sensation “Andrei Rublev” says Tarkovsky had a strong dislike for Kubrick’s film. “It is exactly what science fiction is not supposed to be,” Yusov recalls the director fuming.
Indeed, for all of his cerebral tendencies, Tarkovsky’s films all have a distinct core of humanity. When the lead character in “Solaris” arrives at a rural idyll on Earth (or is it?) late in the film, the landscape appears devoid of life — trees bare, pond water undisturbed the slightest ripple. Yusov explains the stroke of luck that made the shot possible: weather cold enough to freeze the pond but not snowy or overtly wintry. The setting, as a result, simply looks dead — and the camera’s slow zoom in on the character navigating that terrain underscores his melancholy.
Several features on the DVD, including a sage commentary by scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, point to the helmer’s intimate relationships with actors and crew members. Many shed their Russian stoicism when recalling the devastating effect of Tarkovsky’s death in 1986 at age 54. He was never allowed even to visit Russia once he left.
Akira Kurosawa offers a stirring tribute in a 1977 essay reprinted in the “Solaris” booklet.
After a screening of the film in Moscow, the two repaired to a film union bar. “Tarkovsky, who does not usually drink, got completely drunk and cut off the speakers at the restaurant, then began singing the theme of ‘Seven Samurai’ at the top of his lungs,” Kurosawa writes. “I joined in, eager to keep up. At that moment, I was very happy to be on Earth.”