Mirror depicts the thoughts, emotions and memories of Alexei, or Alyosha (Ignat Daniltsev), and the world around him as a child, adolescent, and forty-year-old. The adult Alexei is only briefly glimpsed, but is present as a voice-over in some scenes including substantial dialogue. The structure of the film is discontinuous and nonchronological, without a conventional plot, and combines incidents, dreams and memories along with some news-reel footage. The film switches among three different time-frames: prewar (1935), war-time (1940s), and postwar (1960s or '70s).
Mirror draws heavily on Tarkovsky's own childhood. Memories such as the evacuation from Moscow to the countryside during the war, a withdrawn father and his own mother, who actually worked as a proof-reader at a printing press, feature prominently.
The film opens with Alexei's adolescent son Ignat (also played by Ignat Daniltsev) switching on a television and watching the examination of a stammerer by a physician. After the opening titles roll, a scene is set in the countryside during prewar times in which Alexei's mother Maria (Margarita Terekhova) — also called Masha and Marusya — talks with a doctor (Anatoli Solonitsyn) who chances to be passing by. The exterior and interior of Alexei's grandfather's country house are seen. The young Alexei, his mother and sister watch as the family barn burns down. In a dream sequence Maria is washing her hair. Now in the postwar time-frame, Alexei is heard talking with his mother Maria on the phone while rooms of an apartment are seen. Switching back to the prewar time-frame, Maria is seen rushing frantically to her work-place as a proof-reader at a printing press. She is worrying about a mistake she may have overlooked, but is comforted by her colleague Liza (Alla Demidova), who then abruptly reduces her to tears with withering criticism. Back in postwar time, Alexei quarrels with his wife, Natalia (also played by Margarita Terekhova), who has divorced him and is living with their son Ignat. This is followed by news-reel scenes from the Spanish Civil War and of a balloon ascent in the U.S.S.R. In the next scene, set in Alexei's apartment, Ignat meets with a strange woman (Tamara Ogorodnikova) sitting at a table. At her request, Ignat reads a passage from a letter by Pushkin and receives a telephone call from his father Alexei. The strange woman vanishes mysteriously. Switching to war-time, the adolescent Alexei is seen undergoing rifle training with a dour instructor, intercut with news-reel footage of World War II and the Sino-Soviet border conflict. The reunion of Alexei and his sister with their father (Oleg Yankovsky) at war's end is shown. The film then returns to the quarrel between Alexei and his wife Natalia in the postwar sequence. Switching again to prewar time, vistas of the country house and surrounding countryside are followed by a dreamlike sequence showing a levitating Maria. The film then moves to the postwar time, showing Alexei apparently on his death-bed with a mysterious malady. The final scene plays in the prewar time-frame, showing a pregnant mother, Maria, intercut with scenes showing Maria young and old. (Old Maria is played by Tarkovsky's own mother, Maria Vishnyakova.)
N.B. Several of the characters are played by the same actors.Filipp Yankovsky as the child Alexei
Ignat Daniltsev as the adolescent Alexei and Ignat, Alexei's son
Innokenty Smoktunovsky as the adult Alexei (voice only)
Margarita Terekhova as the young Maria/Masha/Maroussia, Alexei's mother, and Natalia, Alexei's wife
Maria Vishnyakova as the elderly Maria
Oleg Yankovsky, Alexei's father
Alla Demidova as Liza, Maria's friend at printing house
Anatoly Solonitsyn as Forensic doctor & pedestrian
Tamara Ogorodnikova as Nanny and Strange woman at the tea table
Larisa Tarkovskaya as Nadezhda, Alexei's neighbor
Arseny Tarkovsky as Narrator/Poet (voice only)
Olga Kizilova as the redhead girl
The concept of Mirror dates as far back as 1964, when Tarkovsky wrote down his idea for a film about the dreams and memories of a man, though without the man appearing on screen as he would in a conventional film. The first episodes of Mirror were written while Tarkovsky was working on Andrei Rublev. These episodes were published as a short story under the title A White Day in 1970. The title was taken from a 1942 poem by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky. In 1968, after having finished Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky went to the cinematographer's resort in Repino intending to write the script for The Mirror together with Aleksandr Misharin. This script was titled Confession and was proposed to the film committee at Goskino. Although it contained popular themes – for example, a heroic mother, the war, and patriotism – the proposal was turned down. The main reason was most likely the complex and unconventional nature of the script. Moreover, Tarkovsky and Misharin clearly stated that they did not know what the final form of the film would be – this was to be determined in the process of filming.
With the script being turned down by the film committee, Tarkovsky went on to make the film Solaris. But his diary entries show that he was still eager to make the film. Finally, the script was approved by the new head of Goskino, Filipp Ermash in the summer of 1973. Tarkovsky was given a budget of 622,000 Soviet ruble and 7500 metres (24,606 feet) of Kodak film, corresponding to 110 minutes, or roughly three takes assuming a film length of 3000 metres (10,000 feet).
Several versions of the script for Mirror exist, as Tarkovsky constantly rewrote parts of the script, with the latest variant of the script written in 1974 while he was in Italy. One scene that was in the script but that was removed during shooting was an interview with his mother. Tarkovsky wanted to use a hidden camera to interview her on the pretext that it was research for the film. This scene was one of the main reasons why Vadim Yusov, who was the camera-man for all of Tarkovsky's previous films refused to work with him on this film. At various times, the script and the film was known under the titles Confession, Redemption, Martyrology, Why are you standing so far away?, The Raging Stream and A White, White Day (sometimes also translated as A Bright, Bright Day.). Only while filming Tarkovsky decided to finally title the film Mirror. (The final film does indeed feature several mirrors with some scenes shot in reflection.)
A poster of Tarkovsky's 1966 film Andrei Rublev is seen on a wall. Mirror thus forms the third part, together with Tarkovsky's previous film Solaris which was made in 1972 and which references Andrei Rublev by having an icon made by him being placed in the main character's room, in a series of three films by Tarkovsky referencing Andrei Rublev.
Initially, Tarkovsky considered Alla Demidova and Swedish actress Bibi Andersson for the role of the mother. In the end Margarita Terekhova was chosen.
Principal photography began in September 1973 and ended in March 1974. Outdoor scenes were shot in Tutshkovo near Moscow and the indoor scenes were shot at the Mosfilm studio. The naturalist style of the film required Margarita Terekhova to forego makeup completely.
The completed film was initially rejected by Filipp Ermash, the head of Goskino in July 1974. One reason given was that the film is incomprehensible. Tarkovsky was infuriated about this rejection and even toyed with the idea of going abroad and making a film outside the Soviet Union. Mirror was ultimately approved by Goskino without any changes in fall 1974.
Mirror never had an official premiere and had only a limited, second category release with only 73 copies. Although it was officially announced for September 1975, it was shown as early as March 1975.
When Mosfilm critics were asked in November 1974 to evaluate Mirror, responses were divided. Some viewed it as a major work that would be better understood upon the analysis of future generations; others dismissed it as an unfocused failure and believed that even more cultured viewers would find its story opaque. This resulted in a very limited distribution. Many audience members walked out of theatrical screenings, but those who approved of the work were ardent in their praise. In a 1975 article for The New York Times, James F. Clarity reported that "in the first round of published reviews, in which some of Mr. Tarkovsky's fellow film makers evaluated his new work, there is much praise, tempered with criticism of some parts of the film." Goskino did not allow it to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. The managing director of the festival, Maurice Bessy, was sympathetic to Tarkovsky. Upon hearing that Mirror would not be allowed to be shown in Cannes, he unsuccessfully threatened to not take any other Soviet film.
Mirror is now frequently listed among the greatest films of all time. In 2012 Sight & Sound directors' poll, Mirror ranks as the 9th greatest films of all time. In a parallel poll by film critics, the film ranks at No. 19. In 2012, Will Self argued that it remains the most beautiful film ever made. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called it "a startling piece of film-making" and described many of its images as "transcendentally brilliant". In the British Film Institute, the film is billed as "a work of cumulative, rhythmic effect" and its unconventional narrative is credited with having "pioneered a poetic and richly allusive form." Director Michael Haneke voted for Mirror in the 2002 Sight & Sound directors' poll, and later said that he has seen the picture at least 25 times.
While highly acclaimed, Mirror continues to be viewed as enigmatic, and has been considered a plotless film. Natasha Synessios wrote that it is closer in structure to a musical piece than a narrative film, noting that Tarkovsky himself "always maintained that he used the laws of music as the film's organisational principle...emphasis placed not on the logic, but the form, of the flow of events." Critic Antti Alanen billed the film as a "space odyssey into the interior of the psyche" and Tarkovsky's In Search of Lost Time. Howard Hampton argued that the work's central subject is "the inescapable persistence of the past."A recitative from Johan Sebastian Bach's Johannes-Passion , ("Und siehe da, der Vorhang im Tempel...") features in the score, as does the opening chorus from the Johannes-Passion ("Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!") accompanying the film's memorable closing scene.
Another of Bach's works Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 614, played by Leonid Roizman, is heard during the opening credits.
A poster of Tarkovsky's 1966 film Andrei Rublev is seen on a wall.
Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy is quoted by the skipping collaborator at the Printing Press: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, ..."