Monday, January 5, 2009

"Sacrifice" (Tarkovsky, 1986) -- a Flawed Masterpiece?

People in general could be divided into two groups, based on how they deal with the concept of mystery. There is such thing as an idea about 'mystery', and this idea forces people to make a choice as to how are they going to deal with it. Some people firmly believe that there really isn't such a thing as 'mystery'. If something appears mysterious, it is merely so because we haven't yet found a coherent explanation for it. With further progress of science/human thought, what used to be regarded as mysterious will one day become plain and trivial. For example, look at the lightning and thunder -- these phenomena used to be apprehended with a lot of mystique and fear, but today, thanks to the unstoppable march of science, even the least educated among us know that a lightning is merely an electrical discharge. Nothing to write home about.

Some other people tend to probe a bit deeper, and to uphold the existence of a mystery as being something that cannot be merely explained away by rational thinking. For example, such people are not complacent upon hearing the explanation that lightning is merely an electrical discharge. To them, this 'electrical discharge' explanation amounts to simply passing the buck. For if a lightning could be reduced to the physical phenomenon of electrical discharge, to what can electrical discharge be reduced? In other words, what is this 'electrical discharge', if not a very profound mystery?

And so we see that there are people who don't believe in the possibility of coming up with a coherent rational explanation of things that mystify us. Like, how come we're here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why is all this happening? These kinds of questions are imbibed in this envelope of inexplicable mystery, and one can only summon the courage to stay with it. To waffle, to run away and to seek to grab your father's hand and cry for help would imply feeble, weak mind.

Tarkovsky is an artist who speak to such people, to people who uphold the existence of a mystery as something inexplicable. The impossibility of explaining the mystery away by using familiar common-sense notions is what makes life worth living. That's the message that one gets from watching Tarkovsky's best movies.

"Sacrifice" (or "Offret") is indeed one of the best movies ever made. This movie strictly speaks to those who find themselves enthralled by this inexplicable mystery. Thus, this movie is definitely not for the feeble-minded people. People who posses weak spirit should not waste time watching this movie, because it will only infuriate them. Basically, pretty much nothing in this movie makes any sense from the everyday, down-to-earth point of view. Even if you try to wrangle some semblance of a rational explanation of the events portrayed in this movie, all your theories will inevitably fall flat on their face, because the movie itself is a veritable cluster of self-contradicting events.

OK, so why am I watching it, then, you may ask? You should watch it only if you are capable of letting go of all your linear ways of thinking. If you can withstand the tension introduced by the decision to not to want to find an explanation, then this movie will definitely blow you away. Any attempt to theorize about this movie will only bring about frustration and may in the end enrage the viewer.

What you need to do if you truly want to experience this movie is follow John Lennon's advice, and "turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream" (from "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles). Once you are able to do that, while staying fully focused, the marvels contained in this movie will start appearing before your eyes and will start speaking to you.

In a way, this movie is similar to those computer-generated posters, where at first everything seems like a chaotic blur of wiggly lines. But if you are able to fully relax (while staying fully focused), and continue staring at the chaotic wiggly lines, sooner or later various recognizable shapes will start to emerge. Of course, some people can do it (i.e. start seeing the 'hidden' shapes), some can't. There is no amount of rational explanation or description that could make the ones who can't see it finally see it. They have to learn to see the hidden shapes by themselves.

Exact same situation applies to "Sacrifice". Some people will walk away from this movie scratching their heads and feeling totally lost. Some other people will be enthralled. If that happens, experiencing this movie is almost a life-transforming event. But it is you who need to experience it; no amount of reading about it will make any difference to you unless you are capable of seeing it with your own eyes.

On to the movie itself: despite the fact that the transfer to DVD (by KINO) is almost atrocious, watching this movie on a decent size high-definition home TV is such a visual feast, that one is hard pressed to find a similarly beautiful movie. The only other movies that come close to the visual beauty of this movie are Stalker, Rublyov, Solaris, and such. Again, it's a huge testament to Tarkovsky's mastery that he is still able to rule the world of cinematography with the best ever made moving pictures.

One can only hope that a more careful transfer of "Sacrifice" will be attempted soon, since this movie deserves the absolute best treatment. Not only is the sharpness severely impacted by the debilitatingly lousy KINO transfer, the colors are also largely affected. But most of all, the incredible, almost palpable world of Tarkovskian textures, captured in this movie, hasn't been transfered properly. The world deserves a better treatment of this movie, and it is our hope that a truly professional publishing house, such as Criterion, will obtain the rights and will publish this movie (perhaps even on Blu Ray?)

The camera work, under the close supervision of Andrei himself, is probably one of the best ever captured on film. Incredibly powerful and yet ever so subtle panning and gliding of the camera contributes a large deal to the hypnotic, trance-like nature of this masterpiece. Each frame was constructed with a painstaking attention to even the most minuscule detail.In addition to that, the positioning and the movement of all the actors in the frame were obviously painstakingly measured and calculated. All of that extreme attention to detail contributes to the overall sense of perfection that this movie is saturated in.

The acting in this movie is simply superb, especially by the main character, played by Erland Josephson. This actor basically carries the entire movie on his shoulders, as all other protagonists are merely used in support of his quest to find the way out of the darkness of his soul.

The way music and sound are used in "Sacrifice" is simply out of this world. Perhaps only Stalker could claim more exalted use of sporadic sounds and ethnic music, but "Sacrifice" comes very, very close. If you're watching this movie at home, make sure that you use high quality sound equipment and also make sure that you crank the volume up, way up -- you won't be disappointed.

The philosophical premise and argumentation that lace this movie are also top-notch. As is always the case in his masterpieces, Tarkovsky manages to touch upon the deepest issues while remaining very lucid. Tarkovsky cited Dostoyevsky as one of his main influences, but what's evident is that he had managed to push the envelope much further than Fyodor could a hundred years earlier. Those of you who like philosophy of aesthetics will endlessly enjoy all the brilliant thoughts presented in this movie.

Another thing that hardly ever gets noticed in Tarkovsky's masterpieces is his incredible sense of humor. After he manages to portray, in extremely vivid colors, the gravity of the situation in which his main protagonists find themselves, Andrei inevitably introduces subtle levity by poking fun at them, by taking the mickey out of them. Sense of humor is a vital ingredient without which salvation cannot occur, and Tarkovsky knew that very well. It is therefore surprising how very few of his fans tend to recognize this divine ability to laugh at one's own condition. Tarkovsky was always very interested in showing us the saving powers that a good sense of humor brings, and in this movie, he does it in the most explicit way ever (e.g. the "Benny Hill" ambulance chase scene toward the end of the movie).

Finally, I'd like to discuss the flaws of this movie. Despite the almost perfect execution, this movie is marred by a couple of surprisingly boring segments. Perhaps that was part of Andrei's 'master plan', it's hard to tell, but Tarkovsky had finally managed, in his last movie, to push some of his trademark long shots into the territory of boredom. I can't believe that I am the person to complain about the length of his shots, since I've always felt that even his longest shots could go even longer (and I'm specifically talking about the long shots in Stalker and Rublyov). However, even a die-hard fan of Tarkovsky's mesmerizing long shots will find the scene when Alexander is fidgeting around the house and is piling up the chairs to set them on fire way too boring and overdrawn. Why did Tarkovsky decide to 'overstay his welcome' with these shots, remains a mystery.

Other than that, this movie is brilliant. A true masterpiece of the world cinematography (even if a bit flawed one:)