I went to see "Solaris" last night, at the local arts centre's cinema.  It's part of a season of films made by Andrei Tarkovsky which is currently touring Scotland.  Some people are fans of the Russian director because he was an auteur; some due to the rich symbolism of his films; some thanks to the cult which has grown around him since his early passing.  In this case, Tarkovsky's profound feeling for humanity makes Solaris both inspiring and moving.

Tarkovsky is often called a visionary, and for good reason.  Along with the French film-maker Chris Marker, Tarkovsky's work reaches parts of what it means to be human which almost no other art has.  By comparison, Hollywood films seem superficial: they think desire is Sharon Stone without any underwear.  Solaris demonstrates how deeply people can feel for someone or something they've lost, and how far they'll go to reclaim a part of them which, as one of the characters in Solaris puts it, has become their conscience.

Solaris is the most profound film I've ever seen; I’ve never watched a film then thought about it constantly afterwards, gone to bed, then woken the next day with my head still full of images drawn from it and feelings evoked by it.  At a time when all we seem to hear about Russia are Putin’s hardline politics and the “Ultra” football hooligans fighting hooligans from other countries, perhaps we need to be reminded of the achievements of Russian art, literature and film-making.

All of Tarkovsky's films are about the unknowable - something we reach out towards without fully understanding.  His later film Stalker seems like a premonition of Chernobyl - it was shot ten years before the nuclear accident and captures the sense of a world destroyed by Man which has begun regenerating itself.  The strangely mutated plants and insects which grew back in the Zone of Exclusion around the reactors was foreseen by Tarkovsky as the Zona, a temperate jungle of plants into which only stalkers (in the deer stalker, or guide, sense of the word) go.

When the three travellers in Stalker finally reach the Zone, they search for and eventually find the Room - the object of their journey. The Room is a derelict industrial hall with mounds of soda ash or a similar white powder flowing like sand dunes across the floor.  In metaphysical terms, it's a place where your deepest wish can be fulfilled - but at a terrible price.  Solaris similarly tackles things deep inside human nature.

At the core of Solaris is the relationship between Kris Kelvin and his wife Hari.  It isn't a film "about" space travel, or science fiction - it's a film about what it means to be human.  How Hari came to be on the Solaris spacecraft is a piece of pure metaphysics, but what she and Kris go through, and the agonising final scene which explores how Kelvin’s life can never have a simple resolution, peers deeply into the human condition.  Tarkovsky, to use a cliché from the Seventies, was a cosmonaut of inner space.

Of course, along with its script, actors and narrative - the film relies on set and locations for its impact.  The opening sequence, a shot of a pellucid stream with water flowing over weeds, is rich in translucency and colour, with the strands of weed flowing sinuously in the current … and then a copper-coloured aspen leaf floats by, suddenly introducing depth to the image.  Presumably intended as a metaphor for life, a symbol of transience, the leaf in the stream becomes potent once you realise that Kris Kelvin is spending his final day on Earth before going into space.

First thing in the morning, he leaves the dacha or country cottage where he's staying and goes for a walk.  Sunlight slanting through the trees, water meadows, birdsong, a pond full of weed and insect life - to which mankind adds the horse and dog, his familiar companions.  Kris stands on the verandah in a thunderstorm, rivulets of rain coursing down his face: you sense that he needed to experience Earth for one last time before it was lost to him.

One hour in to a two-and-three-quarter-hour long film, you will realise, slightly amazed, this is science fiction which doesn't rely on endless special effects.  As a result, it stands head and shoulders above 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Solaris is pretty much unique in that it defies “genre” classification which critics love; Tarkovsky hunted alone.  If Solaris borrows from anyone, it's the renaissance astronomer Kepler, who dreamt of space flight, trips to the moon and what life might be like on other worlds.

Kelvin arrives at the Solaris space station, which Akira Kurosawa said was the most impressive film set he'd ever seen, somewhere quite unique which is far removed from the usual images of SciFi: Jules Verne, Bladerunner, William Gibson or the relentless hi-tech baroque of Star Wars and Star Trek.  It's an aesthetic which countless directors tried to copy but only Tarkovsky had the budget and skill to make it believable.

Can I suggest you see the film yourself, then judge how its director understood the need for meaning and purpose in our lives, for belief, for intimacy, and even our connection with animals and the rest of the natural world.  Solaris is visually stunning, emotionally moving, and has the moral sense of Pasternak’s masterpiece, Dr Zhivago; it’s also too good to leave to the film snobs, hipsters and other sorts who made up half the screening’s audience.

So why am I writing about it here, on what's ostensibly an architecture magazine's website, rather than doing a quick post on Facebook - Saw Solaris, was gr8, innit bruv. Like.  Well, around the same time I figured out that the best writing is about folk rather than things - because people are fundamentally interested in people - I also realised that, at their core, buildings are about people rather than architecture.

Images copyright - Curzon Artificial Eye - http://www.curzonartificialeye.com/solaris/

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