The Spiritual Worlds of Alexander Sokurov
Sokurov's Cinema of Spiritual Oppression
(A Reflection on the Film "Mother and Son")

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    Alexander Sokurov is a director, who possesses an enormous cinematic gift. It is, therefore, doubly regrettable that along with some high accomplishments, he has produced some low points as well. Films like "Save and Protect" and "Moloch" are downright embarrassments for a director of such high caliber (and "Russian Ark", while being a fine work of art, is just a little too superficial). Fortunately, he has more than made up for that with such remarkable films as "Man's Lonely Voice" and "Second Circle". However, his film "Mother and Son" can be considered to be the pinnacle of his output so far. Sokurov's style of filmmaking is often compared to that of Andrei Tarkovsky. However, Sokurov himself, while not resenting the comparison, does resist this linkage:

"I would say that we had a very close friendship rather than collegial creative collaboration. I don't know why he liked what I was doing."

(Alexander Sokurov, Film Comment Nov/Dec 1997)

    While there is no denying certain similarities of cinematic style between Tarkovsky and Sokurov (such as incredibly long takes, the extremely natural manner of their actors, the poignant use of natural sounds and music - to mention a few), yet there are indeed crucial differences between Sokurov's inner world and Tarkovsky's inner world as these manifest in their films. Both of them are "spiritual" filmmakers in the sense that, in their art they concern themselves with profound questions of human existence and seek to give visible expression to the INNER reality of their being. However, it is precisely in their inner realities that the two could not be more different from each other.

    In Tarkovsky's films, we see that something is weighing heavily upon the souls of the main characters, something is oppressing their spirits - and yet each film is marked by a phenomenal attempt on the part of the main characters (that is, on the part of the director) to transcend this oppression, to break free from it and to rise above it. Thus, Tarkovsky's cinema is the cinema of striving towards spiritual liberation.

    In Sokurov's films, we see the opposite. We also observe the oppressed state of the characters - but here, over the course of each film, it becomes increasingly clear that this oppression, this heaviness is something that can not and will not be lifted. The characters make little or no attempt to struggle against this oppression. Instead, Sokurov's cinema is the cinema of and for the expression of this state of spiritual oppression.

    Interestingly enough, this critical difference between these two great directors is perceived intuitively by the audiences, and they show it through their involuntary, unconscious reactions right after the showings of the films. If one stands outside the theater and observes the faces of the people coming out, one cannot help noticing the uplifted expressions (right after one of Tarkovsky's films) and the oppressed expressions (right after one of Sokurov's films.)

    The case is no different with Sokurov's latest film, Mother and Son , which depicts the final day of an old woman's life as she is being cared for by her son. In this film, the feeling of oppression is everywhere: not only in the faces of the main characters, not only in the claustrophobic, dimly-lit interiors of their house, but in the very air they breathe, in every word they utter. Their speech is slow and heavy (and not just because of the mother's illness), as though even the act of speaking has become an effort for them. Forget speaking - even breathing is an effort for both mother and son, so heavy does their existence weigh upon them! When the son, casting a glance around their outside world, asks the mother: "Well, is it good to live here?" she answers: "Living here is not bad - not bad at all - only it is hard [in Russian, literally 'heavy'] all the time for some reason." This state of heaviness is captured so superbly by Sokurov in every aspect of his film that one is almost not surprised to see even nature cooperating: dark, dense, heavy clouds hang low over the barren landscape throughout the entire film, giving Sokurov's cinematography that "painterly" quality and reinforcing that feeling of oppression.

    But the most ingenious cinematic expression for this state of spiritual oppression is Sokurov's use of distortion effects. By placing panes of glass in front of the lens and to the side, using mirrors, Chinese brushes and paint, Sokurov distorts his images in various ways. As a result, people, objects, nature - everything appears compressed (either vertically or horizontally). It is as if the unbearable pressure of his characters' existence has compressed their whole world into this kind of distorted/oppressed reality. In this way, their state of INWARD distortion/oppression is given a visible expression in this OUTWARD form.

    It should be noted in passing, that masterful strokes such as these do not come about as a result of intellectual calculation. Like all great artists, Sokurov works strictly through intuition in his best films. This is invaluable for the seriously seeking viewer, because the director, who works in this way, cannot help but speak the truth through his cinema - as a result, revealing things about himself, of which he may not be fully (or even at all) conscious. Simply put, only he, who is inwardly distorted can create the images of distortion; only he, who is spiritually oppressed, can create the cinema of spiritual oppression. And since in today's world, there isn't ONE among us, who is NOT to some degree inwardly distorted or oppressed, Sokurov's cinema becomes extremely valuable for us - if viewed from this perspective.

    This brings us to the next and most important point: what is the nature of the inward distortion captured on film in Mother and Son? It is the most common one of all: the false conception of love. Just how wide-spread this false conception has become is illustrated by the reviews from all around the world, which describe this film as the story of "ideal love". No one seems to dare question this "ideal". Even when we see in this film such things as should make us inwardly shudder: the son bottle-feeding his mother; such touching between mother and son as, at times, borders on the incestuous - all of these seem to be interpreted as "tender moments" rather than clear signs of the inward distortion. This can only be because, even though this type of obsessive relationship is more characteristic of a Russian (and Eastern) culture, the Westerners nevertheless secretely nourish this same type of an "ideal" within them.

   And where is there in this film even an attempt made to find a connection with the Creator? Where is the striving for a greater meaning in life? When the son implores the mother to go on living, she asks: "What for?" - "What for?" he echoes, "I don't know. As far as I can see, most people live for no particular reason." Mercifully, he doesn't go on to say that she should live for him, though the entire film makes it crystal clear that all they have to live for is each other. There is a critical moment in the film, when the mother is having an attack on the bench outside their house. With her head thrown back, gasping for air, she is looking up at the sky and just at that moment she hears the rolls of thunder: "Who is it up there?!" she cries out in her anguish - for the first and only time in the entire film raising her voice and breaking through this oppressive lethargy, which has enveloped them both. But the son answers in a monotone: "Nobody. There is nobody up there." This is a great illustration of human isolation - isolation from the Light, from Life, from Love, brought about by human beings themselves. Having compressed the concept of true love into narrow and oppressive boundaries of family bonds, human beings now find themselves utterly alone in this world. It is little wonder then that they turn to each other and cling to each other - and this convulsive clinging they now call "love". And when the time comes to leave all that is earthly behind, all they can say, just like the mother does in the film, is: "It's so unfair."

    And what else can they say? Having never seriously concerned themselves with directing their thoughts and their desires BEYOND the earthly, they possess no inkling of the grandeur of a human being's mission in Creation. But without the knowledge of his specific purpose within the structure of Creation, a human being can never be truly happy, no matter what his own idea of happiness might be. Even if the mother were to go on living for the next hundred years, mother and son would be just as oppressed together, because the cause of their oppression would not have been removed.

    The film ends on what some might consider to be a declaration of faith. Sitting near his mother's lifeless body, the son addresses her, saying he knows that she can hear him and telling her to wait for him at the appointed place. Yet one gets the intuitive impression (conveyed through Sokurov's cinematography) that even "over there" there will be no relief for mother and son. She will still be just as weak; he will still be carrying her around everywhere and the world they will live in will still be just as heavy, as oppressed and as dimly-lit. This intuition is indeed accurate, because under the Natural Order of this Creation there can be no change in the circumstances of any individual until there is an INNER CHANGE OF PERCEPTION. This simple process holds true for ALL levels of our existence - therefore, it is just as applicable AFTER earthly death as it is in our present earthly life.

    There is a scene, which perhaps, represents the climax of the film. After their "walk" together, the son leaves the mother to rest and goes out by himself. He ends up in a kind of forest and leans against the trunk of one of the large trees. The rays of the sun are coming through the branches, but he does not see them. Covering his face with his hands, he begins to sob. Down to his knees he goes, his face buried in his hands, not noticing the rays of the setting sun. Or is it the rising sun? There is a sense of a Great Presence in those rays, and yet, bathed in this Light, a human being is sobbing in agony, completely cut off from It.

    The connection with the Light cannot be re-established unless every son and every mother and every daughter and every father recognizes the necessity to direct their gaze BEYOND family relationships and to acquire the Knowledge enabling everyone to place family relationships into a proper perspective within the workings of Creation. This Knowledge is now available to everyone through the book "In the Light of Truth: the Grail Message" by Abd-ru-shin. At one point in the film, mother and son are sitting in the tall grass and the son says: "Creation - it is wonderful." The searing contrast between these words and his oppressed expression creates quite a dissonance. Is there, perhaps, a regret in his voice that the two of them remain cut off from the wonder of Creation? Is there a longing deep within him to still find a way back to that wonder?

    Mother and Son is the most powerful record on film up to date of the oppressed state of the human spirit. And Sokurov is a truly contemporary film artist. He is the voice of the people - and not only of the Russian people, as he seems to think, but of spiritually oppressed people everywhere - because through his cinema he intuitively expresses the condition of their souls: no longer striving for anything, they exist "for no particular reason", barely able to move under the pressure of their own false conceptions.


for The Spiritual Worlds of Alexander Sokurov Part Two:

 "His Search for Spiritual Identity in 'Father and Son'"