Conscience, Memory, and Death
The director himself lies on Aleksei’s deathbed as the doctor tries to explain the reason for his sudden decline in health to his mother and the mysterious woman who briefly appeared (as an apparition?) to Ignat. The bed is surrounded by mirrors but the dying man lying in bed is concealed by a screen. This scene captures the simultaneous revealing and concealing which characterizes surfaces upon which we search for ourselves only to hide once more. The doctor claims that Aleksei is dying of a bad conscience. He says that sometimes a person recalls a memory that so plagues their conscience, they simply die. Here the distinctions between conscience and body, memory and matter, are blurred and each bleeds and blends into the other. Mirror is just as much a film about memory as it is about matter.
Unlike the guilt that Kris Kelvin is burdened with in Solaris, the protagonist of Mirror is diagnosed as having a guilty conscience without any clear explanation of the source of his guilt. Is it guilt on behalf of his father who left the family back in 1935? Is it guilt for his failed marriage with Natalia? Is it guilt for subjecting his son, Ignat, to the same fate of fatherlessness that he suffered as a child — guilt for perpetuating this deprivation in a Nietzschean whir of eternal return?
No one interpretation will suffice because, like a mirror, this film reflects what the viewer presents it with. What sets it apart as a work of art with philosophical substance is the fact that, as a film, Mirror’s crystalline structuring of time refracts and reflects the time that is captured by it. The title of this film suggests that it might be an autobiographical work, and Tarkovsky does play the role of the protagonist in this scene on the death bed, however this work is by no means a vanity project (at least no more so than any other film of Tarkovsky’s). Mirror is the work most representative of Tarkovsky’s theory that creating a film consists in sculpting in time.
In Mirror, aesthetics and ethics come into contact with one another and disassemble self-hood in the reflection of the other. Underlying its reflective surface is the consistency of freedom. Mirror is composed of times that coalesce in the face of death. In the face of death, we see ourselves, but in that very reflection of self, we are able to attend to the memories that coalesce in our self-understanding.