Tarkovsky's Mirror

This summer is a hot one for exciting new releases.  It had been a bit of a dry season this year, but my last couple of posts have been new releases, and believe me, they're gonna keep on rolling for the next month and beyond.  For today we've got Criterion's brand new and long awaited release of Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror from 1975, my personal favorite, and probably his objectively best film (though I'd hear arguments for Andrei Rublev).  2021 is finally taking off!
It's certainly his most simple and focused story, without the artier abstractions of Sacrifice or the mystifying sci-fi of his most famous films, but deeper than his Ivan's Childhood or his early works.  Well, I guess on paper it could be seen as a lot to work through. You've got the film traversing through two distinct timelines at once: the protagonist's adult age with his ex-wife, and his childhood age with his mother, who's (mostly) played by the same actress.  And you've got dream sequences, black and white scenes and documentary footage providing historical backdrop.  So if you watch movies by scrolling through socmed on your phone and sporadically glancing up at the screen, yes, it's very easy to get completely lost.  But if you're paying proper attention from beginning to end, the film actually keeps you clued in the whole way, even to the point of following the film's first dream sequence with a character explaining on screen that he'd just had this dream.  This is no Inland Empire; you shouldn't be guessing at interpretations or opaque meaning.  It's a very straight-forward emotional journey.
And a damn enriching one.  All of Tarkovsky's films are great, but none are quite so flawless.  Like, Nostalghia is a beautiful movie, but it feels a little "back to the well" with its imagery, Some of its overt artistic statements feel pretentious (and that's an allegation I'll almost never lodge at a piece of art), and Domiziana Giordano's character feels like a clumsy chauvinist attempt to write a female character.  Mirror on the other hand, is written with real empathy and maturity.  If you had to boil his whole body of work to one piece, this is the quintessential masterpiece.
Mirror has been available on a fairly maligned, barebones DVD from Kino since at least 2000.  I think I even owned it at one point, but I was quick to replace it with the highly touted Ruscico international special edition that came out in 2013.  Then in 2016, Artificial Eye released it on blu, and I've been tempted to upgrade again, but rumors floated for years about Criterion putting out a better edition.  I almost broke down before it was finally officially announced, this summer they were putting out a 2-BD set with a new 2k restoration from the 35mm original camera negative. 
2013 Ruscico DVD top; 2021 Criterion BD bottom.
Mirror was always an Academy Ratio film, so Ruscico's 1.34:1 wasn't too far off the mark.  Criterion tweaks it to 1.37:1, though, and their new scan actually pulls out to reveal extra information along all four sides.  The only real drawback of the DVD is that it was interlaced, and of course that's been cleared away in this film's journey to HD.  The image is of course sharper and clearer, better retaining its filmic origins.  But honestly, the old disc didn't look too bad, with similar brightness levels and color timing.  Now, I have read a few criticisms of the highlights on Criterion's disc, occasionally being blown out.  The first set of shots has bluer skies on other transfers.  But the clouds aren't totally flared out to pure white here; you can still just barely make them out still (try lowering the gamma if you don't see them as is).  Even if they have gotten it wrong, it's the kind of thing to turn an A rating to an A-; but honestly, I'm not sure this isn't just how it should look.  It's certainly striking and compelling as they have it here, and again, pretty aligned with how Ruscico had it a decade earlier.

Another thing about Ruscico's DVDs: they're always great with language options.  They have the original Russian mono track, and in a fit of over-ambition, a 5.1 mix, but with optional English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, German, Portuguese, Hebrew, Chinese and Arabic subtitles.  They same subs apply to all of their special features.  Criterion drops all the foreign stuff, but keeps the removable English subs and bumps the mono track up to a more robust LPCM.
So like I said, Ruscico's DVD was a pretty full special edition, although it feels a little desultory in what it includes.  The star inclusion is a lengthy on-camera interview with Tarkovsky's co-writer, who's got a lot of great memories and anecdotes about their work together.  After that, there's a ten-minute interview with Grigory Yavlinsky about Tarkovsky, but you'll probably spend most of it being distracted trying to figure out who this guy is (apparently a Russian economist?) and why he's being interviewed here.  Then there's vintage stuff from Russian television, like a 3 minute featurette on Nikolay Grinko.  He's an actor who has a bit part in Mirror, but this TV piece never mentions it, just some of his other work.  There are slightly longer but otherwise  very similar ones for bit players Anatoliy Solonitsyn and Innokenty Smoktunovsky, and again their TV pieces focus only on other, unrelated works.  More on topic is an 20-minute interview with composer Eduard Artemyev, but even here he's talking more about other Tarkovsky films, and it doesn't seem like this was conducted with Mirror in mind.  Finally, there's a ten minute tribute to Tarkovsky, which sets interlaced, non-anamorphic clips from his films to music, and the trailer for Solaris
Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema Prayer
Most of that stuff's not uninteresting, but hardly fitting, so I wasn't surprised to see Criterion chuck it.  Thankfully, they did hang onto the screenwriter interview, and they've conducted their own, new talk with the conductor that does focus on Mirror.  But oh, there's so much more.  There's a feature length 2019 documentary about Tarkovsky made by his son, which happily focuses on his work rather than drab biographical details (as in all that trite "he grew up in a shack with a handmade camera and a dream" stuff), making for a very engrossing overview of his career.  Then there's another excellent, hour-long documentary on Mirror itself, which divides itself between interviews with surviving cast and crew members and critical experts.  It's really smart and well made, with some particularly keen insights from Tarkovsky's sister.  Then there's a third documentary, this time on the film's DP, Georgy Rergerb, which is another surprising delight, thanks in part to what a character Rerberg apparently was.  There are also two brief, vintage interviews with Tarkovsky and a whopping 98-page booklet that reproduces the original screenplay and 1968 film pitch, along with a new essay by Carmen Gray.
So this is a pretty definitive release in my book, and the documentaries rise above the level of special features to works worthy of our collections in their own rights.  In other words, even if you're perfectly satisfied with your previous edition of Mirror and don't feel inclined to replace it, you should still get this just for the other docs.  But this is also a fantastic edition of Mirror, looking and sounding great; a real must-have from Criterion this summer.  You might want to hang onto your DVD, just for the odds and ends, but if you don't already have it, I wouldn't seek it out.  This is all you need.

Now onto our next killer new release!

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