Memory and Imagination in The Mirror

The Mirror 1975

Earlier today in my History of Cinema III, I screened one of my favorite films from last spring’s version of the same class: Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. I remember sensing that last year’s students enjoyed the spatial and temporal puzzle of the film. This year, I don’t think they enjoyed it as much.

The film is indeed challenging. It lacks any substantial screen time for the protagonist. Instead, we only hear a disembodied voice. However, we see Margarita Terekhova for the majority of the film. And, if I may spoil the film a bit, she plays the roles of the protagonist’s wife Natalya and mother Maroussia. This is a common strategy in the film, and it certainly was not done due to budgetary concerns.

The Mirror 1975

There are many big themes in the film, including mortality, family, history, and even Russian society. The protagonist’s relationships with his mother and wife are perhaps the most important as they are both embodied by the same person in most of his memories. However, the two themes that struck me when I first saw the film and continue to inform my interpretation are memory and imagination. As the protagonist dies, he reflects on his life and the important people and events. As spectators, we see all of the events from his perspective. This is why we see actors playing multiple roles, as his association between them is so close that his subjective consciousness can’t distinguish them.

We also see how certain motifs recur throughout the film, such as the 1935 fire, the departure of his father, the red-headed girl he adored when he was a boy, and the Leonardo da Vinci monograph. All of these recur throughout the film in strategic places as he tries to make sense of his life. In each of them, he is able to explain them against his own memory of them and his grasping with what it means now that he’s approaching the end of his life. We can see his concern with legacy when he considers his son in nearly all of his memories, as he remembers himself through his son’s body.

The students either seem confused, bored, or underwhelmed by this representation. It’s also possible that I oversold the film, when I compared it to Persona. I screened the Bergman film earlier this semester, and it was a hit.

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