Eyeless in Turin

Wed 19 Nov 2003 08.19 EST

In Hollywood Ending, Woody Allen came up with the comic conceit of a blind movie director. For Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov, this idea is neither far-fetched nor funny. Sokurov, whose career is being celebrated with a full retrospective at the Turin festival this week, has severe eyesight problems. Interviews with him are conducted in darkened rooms. He doesn't specify his ailment, but explains through his translator that it has afflicted him for "six or seven years". The condition, he says, is under control.

The Russian director's work has long divided western critics. Susan Sontag wrote: "He is perhaps the most ambitious and original film-maker working anywhere in the world today." But others deem his films "hermetic" and "impenetrable," or complain about his mysticism and nationalism.

To these sceptics, the revelation that Sokurov's eyesight is deteriorating won't come as a surprise. Many of his films have been shot in hazy, blurred fashion. Mother and Son (1998), about the "endlessly tender" relationship between a dying mother and her young son, was lit in an especially numinous style. "It was a cold, windy and cloudy summer, and because it was cloudy, there were constant changes in the light," the director commented. The crepuscular look of the film was, he claimed, inspired by the paintings of the 19th-century German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich.

Taurus (2000), about the last days of Lenin, was equally murky. In this case, the opaque lighting complemented the confusion and frailty of the Soviet leader as he prepared to die, in Sokurov's words, "in a house that once belonged to somebody else, surrounded by unfamiliar things, sleeping on sheets that are not his own and drinking from foreign cups".

The theory that Sokurov's work has been getting ever more opaque because of his eye condition was only partly scotched by the sheer spectacle of Russian Ark, his epic, one-shot "film in a single breath" that takes in 300 years of Russian history. Tellingly, the movie is littered with references to blindness. The film begins with a black screen and the ominous line: "I open my eyes and I see nothing." Sokurov himself is the invisible interlocutor who accompanies an 18th-century dandy and diplomat on his travels through the labyrinthian corridors of the Hermitage museum.

Sokurov's most recent film, Father and Son, doesn't suggest a director who is wary about coming out into the light. Partly shot in Lisbon (though set in Russia), this is an intense study of the relationship between a father in his late 30s and his son, a military cadet. The look of the film was inspired by the director's love of JMW Turner's watercolours.

The 53-year-old director has two trilogies to complete. He is planning to end his "men of power" series, which includes Moloch (about Hitler and Eva Braun) and Taurus, with a film about Emperor Hirohito, which is currently in pre-production. He also aims to finish his family trilogy with Two Brothers and a Sister. Whatever the state of his eyes, he says, he'll carry on working as long as he is able.