Andrey Tarkovsky: A Cinema of Prayer (Andrey A. Tarkovsky, 2019)

by Donato Totaro Volume 27, Issue 3-4-5 / May 2023 8 minutes (1902 words)

In an earlier issue of Offscreen I wrote about five documentaries on Tarkovsky in the essay “Tarkovsky and the World of the Documentary”. Even at that point in 2011 there were close to 20 documentaries about Tarkovsky. Since then the coverage of Tarkovsky in the documentary genre has grown in response to his increased International status as a grand master filmmaker (in the latest 2022 BFI Sight & Sound Poll three of Tarkovsky’s films ranked in the top 100 films of all-time). Tarkovsky is a director whose status and mythology has grown exponentially since his death, which explains not just the many documentaries but the dozens of books, scholarly essays, video essays and testimonials that have been dedicated to him. Some of these documentaries are cited at the ‘Cinephilia & Beyond’ website.

And the always useful Tarkovsky website

Although there have been many documentaries made since 2011 on Tarkovsky, including hundreds of shorter audio-visual essays, and the amazing hour-long entry on Stalker in the Cursed 2 series 1 , my aim here is to discuss one documentary, released in 2019, Andrei Tarkovsky: A Cinema of Prayer. This film was directed by the filmmaker’s son, which gives it a uniquely personal ‘insider’s’ viewpoint on the filmmaker. Tarkovsky the son had already directed something similar, an intimate portrait of his father during his last days, Andrey Tarkovsky: A Recollection (1996).

Tarkovsky with his future filmmaker son

What sets this apart from the other Tarkovsky docs, for better and worse, is the veneration the filmmaker has toward his subject. As such it is understandable that Andrei the son would be so open in the loving approach to the subject. What makes this film unique is that it is told entirely from the elder Tarkovsky’s viewpoint. There are no extraneous interviews. No friends, no family members, no Tarkovsky experts. Only his voice heard in voice-over or voice-off, taken from the many audio or film interviews he gave during his lifetime, carries the weight of meaning, along with the images selected by younger Andrei, which consist of film clips, home movie footage, set footage, home photographs, drawings, and polaroids. The exception to these secondary existing sources are the scenes filmed (by DP Aleksey Naydenov) in the style of his father. And in most of these cases, shot in the original shooting location of the film in question. Extending the filial lineage, the other ‘voice’ we hear is that of Andrei Tarkovsky’s poet father, Arseniy Tarkovsky, who reads some of his poems over select scenes (as he did in Tarkovsky’s own film, Mirror). As noted by Isabel Jacobs, “This genealogy of longing for the father finds its culmination in A Cinema of Prayer”.

Home photographs that were models for the production design of Mirror

While the voice is entirely the father’s, the perspective or focal point of the film is shaped by the son’s editorial decisions, a function which Andrei A. Tarkovsky shares with the Swedish filmmaker Michael Leszczylowski, who co-edited The Sacrifice with Andrei Tarkovsky and then directed the wonderful documentary filmed on the set of The Sacrifice, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988). The ‘editorial’ perspective is clearly represented in the film’s sub-title: “A Cinema of Prayer.” The two main threads that come out of the film (which is where we see the son’s ‘voice’) is in Tarkovsky’s firm commitment to the spiritual and to the ideals of a supreme being, a God, whose presence the artist strives to depict through their art. On at least two occasions in the documentary we hear Tarkovsky talk about the role of the artist as a “creator”: “Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God?” (241) Throughout, the son’s version of the father is of a seriously religious, if not pious, filmmaker for whom spiritual matters take precedence over the material.

On the set of Ivan’s Childhood

Tarkovsky was undoubtedly a spiritual filmmaker who saw his calling as an artist to probe the human soul to its most profound depths. With the discourses raised in his films, Tarkovsky was never very far away from a discussion on aesthetics, art, religion, and/or morality, with an infusion of Romanticist aesthetics and personal spiritualism. In the documentary Tarkovsky expresses the importance of an individual’s “inner freedom”, an idea common to any artist who lived through the strict social and political restrictions of Socialist Realism. With Nostalghia we also come to realize that what Tarkovsky means by a character’s “spiritual world” goes far beyond strict religious meaning to include the literary and cultural traditions that the central Russian character Gorchakov so deeply misses, and a general sense of global alienation. As his voice-over states, “With Nostalghia I was declaring the utter impossibility of a Soviet or Russian intellectual of living in the West.”

Shooting at the location of the church in Nostalghia

For Tarkovsky art makes “infinity tangible” the inexpressible, expressible through the image. The creative act itself becomes a substitute for faith, most clearly expressed in his anti-epic Andrei Rublev. Faith extends not only to the realm of religion, but the faith in one’s vocation and “refusal to compromise” something that Tarkovsky lived by steadfastly throughout his life, to the point of self-imposed exile from his family and native land he so dearly loved to continue making films (Italy for Nostalghia, Sweden for The Sacrifice).

To quote from my earlier essay, “Yet while Tarkovsky’s religious feelings may be overt, they are certainly not conventional, which leaves his films open to multifarious spiritual meanings (from Christian, to Pantheism, to Fideism, to Humanism). Peter Green has claimed that Tarkovsky’s religious feelings were ‘a curious mixture of orthodox Christianity, fundamentalism, Messianic vision and freethinking’ [Peter Green, Andrei Tarkovsky: The Winding Quest (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993, p. 5]. That Tarkovsky’s religious/spiritual undertaking was very personal and idiosyncratic is evident in the ease with which he maintained a consistency of vision through the varying Christian countries that he worked in: Russian Orthodox (Russia), Roman Catholicism (Italy) and Lutheran (Sweden)” (Totaro, 2000). The younger Tarkovsky is not the first or last person to foreground the theological element of Tarkovsky’s work. Concurrent with the film was a book released which shares the film’s title in spirit, Tarkovsky. Film as Prayer (A Poetic of the Sacred in the Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky [2020] by Elena Dulgheru. Dulgheru writes her book on the belief that a religious reading of Tarkovsky is as rewarding if not more than an aesthetic or stylistic approach. Partly because it is founded on Tarkovsky’s own beliefs. The author quotes Tarkovsky: “Art is a form of prayer. Man only lives through prayer” (qtd Dulgheru 3). But as noted earlier, Tarkovsky’s personal allegiance to religion seemed in constant state of flux and moved away from a strict brand of Orthodox Christianity as he grew older (and physically farther from Russia).

The second lesser thread that comes out in the documentary –which can be seen as a counterpoint, or evidence of Tarkovsky’s own unorthodox approach to religion– is Tarkovsky’s sensitivity toward the environment and ecology. Throughout we hear Tarkovsky’s voice-over lamenting how technological and industrial advances have destroyed the natural world (no better expressed than in Stalker, where ‘nature’ (in color) has to be ‘protected’ from the modern industrial world by a cordoned wall). This comes through clearly in the visual language and mise en scène of his films, in the way nature is lovingly recreated and stylized through poetic gestures such as slow motion, macro close-ups, camera movements and classical music. Chris Marker maybe overstates this point when he claims in his documentary One Dy in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich that Tarkovsky’s camera never films the sky because it is always aimed downwards, seduced by materiality of the earth. There is no doubt that Tarkovsky was ahead of his time when it came to the environment, and dealt with themes of the destruction of the natural world, nuclear waste and ecological ruin in many films, most stridently in Solaris, Stalker, and The Sacrifice.

Country Family Home

For hard core fans of Tarkovsky much of this will be familiar from having seen the other documentaries or having read Tarkovsky’s printed interviews. Indeed, in a sense the film feels like an adaptation of Tarkovsky’s own collected thoughts, Sculpting in Time. But there are some precious moments for even the seasoned Tarkovsky fan, some of which appear revelatory and perhaps (as far as I can tell) appear here for the first time, courtesy of the son’s access to previously unreleased or unseen or rarely screened footage. Like home movie footage of the Tarkovsky summer family home in Myasnoe, near Moscow, which looks like the country dacha he recreated in his most autobiographical film, Mirror; behind the scene colour footage of Andrei Rublev, footage of the home that Tarkovsky lived in when in Florence; contemporary locations visits to original film location, like the half-exposed church near the end of Nostalghia; footage of the Hamlet play Tarkovsky directed, starring his pet actor Anatoliy Solonitsyn as Hamlet and Margarita Terekhova as Gertrude and Ophelia; and the most exciting footage for this viewer, black & white behind the scenes footage from Stalker, where a left to right camera pan movement reveals the set of the opening café scene built right next to a separate ‘meatgrinder’ set! This was one of the most exciting camera movements I’ve seen in years.

On the set of Stalker

Compared to the many other Tarkovsky documentaries, this one falls in the field of pure hagiography, but one that feels earned as it is coming from a son who was barely an adult when his father died. Andrei the younger, who now manages the family archives housed at The Andrey Tarkovsky International Institute (which provided much of the ephemeral material for the film) 2 has had time to think about his father’s legacy and his role in how it is nurtured. Clearly this is a film that does little to topple the myth of Tarkovsky as the ultimate arthouse director, perennially serious and contemplative. The artist who fellow filmmakers speak of with hushed reverence. The continual flow of Tarkovsky’s words on art, religion, freedom, philosophy, gives the appearance that Tarkovsky never dabbled in small talk. Any innocuous question –How’s the weather Andrei?– would lead to an abstract thesis on the beauty of the sun streaming through the clouds. Which does not entirely confer with the impression of Tarkovsky in the Johnson & Petrie book, where Tarkovsky comes across as someone with a healthy sense of humor and who once said that he would rather kill himself than ever be boring in the presence of a woman! Tarkovsky the funny man. This is not the impression one comes away with in this documentary. But then again, is this the impression we want or need of Tarkovsky?


Babes-Bolyai, Ioan Buteanu. Review of A Christian Approach to Cinema: Tarkovsky. Film as Prayer. Cinej Cinema Journal Volume 9.1 (2021) | ISSN 2158-8724 (online) | DOI 10.5195/cinej.2021.324.

Jacobs, Isabel. “The Future of an Illusion: Andrey A. Tarkovsky’s A Cinema of Prayer. East European Film Bulletin. Vol. 106, (Summer 2020)

Totaro, Donato. “Art For All ‘Time’: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time,” Film-Philosophy, December 2000, vol. 4 issue 1, [journal on-line]


  1. This hour long documentary on Stalker, which includes considerable production history, makes a perfect accompaniment to Ryan S. Madson’s essay on Stalker also in this issue.
  2. Isabel Jacobs

Andrey Tarkovsky: A Cinema of Prayer (Andrey A. Tarkovsky, 2019)

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 27, Issue 3-4-5 / May 2023 Film Reviews   andrey tarkovsky   bio-pic   documentary