Frame from the ending of SACRIFICE: a white witch watches the protagonist’s house burn down — a fire he himselfset.

Consuming Tarkovsky’s SACRIFICE: Art & Entertainment as Ways of Seeing

Unanswered Questions. One summary of the plot of Andrey Tarkovsky’s 1986 film Sacrifice begins this way:

An old actor and writer, Alexander…is celebrating his birthday with his family at his secluded country house. He has spent the morning planting a tree with his son and discussing Nietzsche with the psychic postman. Jets fly overhead. Suddenly we learn that the world is liable to be blown up. Alexander makes the vow that he will live in isolation and silence if Armageddon can be avoided. The postman tells him that he can save the world by sleeping with his Icelandic, white-witch maid.

Such a story leaves the viewer with many questions.

  • Why is this actor-writer able to change the course of history?
  • How can a local witch have this kind of power?
  • Why would a man make such a sacrifice?
  • Is any of this even supposed to be real?

None of these questions are answered by watching Sacrifice.

Quintessential World Art Cinema

Tarkovsky made seven films. Sacrifice was his last. These films are all visually beautiful, slow, and mysterious. Long, quiet, uneventful sequences are punctuated by momentous events — from wars to resurrections. Some of his films are historical, some religious, some science fiction, some a mix. Which is Sacrifice?

The difficulty in answering these questions about Sacrifice’s story and genre left some 1986 reviewers puzzled and irritated. (At least one was still irritated two decades later.) While other critics, even sometimes the same critics, praise the film’s beauty and depth. All of which demonstrates that Sacrifice is a quintessential art film: a part of “world art cinema,” an expression of a cosmopolitan culture of shared international taste, and a specific way of perceiving and consuming films. Films cue viewers to apprehend them in specific ways, but these same cues can be perceived as distracting signs if incompetence or emptiness by viewers expecting something different — such as “entertainment.”

Art vs. Entertainment. “Art” in this sense is opposed point for point to entertainment.

  • Art is a sensory experience surpassing words. We absorb it through the eyes and/or ears.
  • An artwork’s context is the history of the medium, as well as moments and methods in other artistic media. This work of film art is similar to this kind of painting and that kind of music, opposed to these other kinds of painting and music.
  • Art demands connoisseurship: study and reflective appreciation through repeated encounters. The ordinary frame of perception blocks access to the aesthetic experience or renders it unpleasant and disorienting — at least for art which aims to challenge conventions, art we call “modern.”
  • The highest compliment in art is that the artwork “stands the test of time.” It stand outside its time period — of which it nevertheless must also be an expression.

Entertainment is a different mode of perception, different from everyday perception but also different from the ways we perceive and consume works of art.

  • Entertainment must be summarized and explained for the purposes of marketing: so friends can tell each other why they should buy this or that product. So entertainment is assumed to be summarizable, even if its selling depends on the idea that “you have to see it for yourself.”
  • A product exists in a marketplace of competing, changing products. Each differentiates itself from others, even while it must fit in recognizable categories and genres so that it can be consumed.
  • Most entertainment products are exhausted in their consumption without leftover or residue. Special preparation is not needed to consume a product — because that would limit sales. The encounter with an entertainment commodity lasts a specific amount of time and then is over, even if the highest goal for such commodities is repeat business and fandom, but those only represent one very advantageous economic arrangement.
  • Entertainment is made for a profit. It is disposable in that there are always new products. The life cycle is relatively short: months, not decades. Products do not stand outside of time: some are simply have longer runs than others, remain profitable for longer. (Disney is a past master at milking value from products which for other producers are largely disposable.)

Art’s Blurred Boundaries, Poverty. The art film is also an international phenomenon: art films circulate around the globe to festivals and markets without being the products of global conglomerates. Sacrifice is international: a Swedish/French coproduction directed by a Russian exile and featuring a notable British actress in a key role. The Swedish Film Institute was one of the producers. Another was the French company Argos Films: the company that produced, among other things, films by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas. Indeed, the official trailer is in French, not Swedish.

Though international in purvey, international art cinema gains credibility from specific markets. Sacrifice was highly-regarded in Europe. The film won numerous international awards, including several prizes at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, including an award Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, and BAFTA’s Best Foreign Language Film in 1988.

The scale of the film’s artistic success was matched by revenues best described as miniscule.

(No budget for the film is available.)

Triggering the Perception of Art

Sacrifice also acts like a work of art.

  • It does things that promote attention to its sensuous contours.
  • It points to other works of art.
  • It is itself reflective and contemplative, and it thereby promotes those attitudes in the viewer.
  • And one of its themes is time itself: Sacrifice is in part about its own experience.
Still frames from the ending of THE SACRIFICE show a house burning down and its inhabitants fleeing.

Since the plot of Sacrifice is mysterious — the film’s director called the film “a parable”–its visuals and use of cinematic techniques instead draw our attention. The film opens and closes, for instance, with very long takes. One summary says:

The film opens with a nine-and-a-half-minute virtuoso tracking shot depicting Alexander planting a tree with his son. One of the last shots in the film, which depicts the burning down of Alexander’s house, lasts six and a half minutes.

These very long takes draw attention to themselves as a sensuous experience and a material fact about film production. They assert the director’s control over the viewer’s experience. They are also a part of the director’s signature style: Tarkovsky is known for these long takes and for an insistence of time’s centrality to cinema. Thus a single technical element does a lot of work in underscoring the film as an aesthetic experience.

One of his shorter long takes is part of CineFix’s video “12 Best Long Takes in Film History.”

Controlling Color. The use of color in Sacrifice–or the lack of it–also draws our attention.

The long opening of SACRIFICE takes place outdoors. The sky’s blue and grass’s green will not be seen again during the rest of the film.

The opening scenes of nature use saturated blues and greens for the sky and plants. By contrast, the interior scenes use muted, desaturated colors.

Interiors in SACRIFICE often use color that is significantly desaturated — especially in contrast to the outdoor scenes.

In a well-illustrated essay, Benjamin Brockbank-Naylor points to Sacrifice for its desaturated colors.

Benjamin Brockbank-Naylor’s still frames demonstrating the use of saturated vs. desaturated colors in SACRIFICE. (The ‘saturated’ image is actually DE-saturated compared with a straight screenshot.)

And three times the film is interrupted by shots, typically of decay and debris, in black-and-white.

Selected b/w stills from SACRIFICE.

These seem to be the main character’s vision, dream, or nightmare. It’s unclear.

In all events, the controlled use of color, like the use of long takes, insist upon the sensory nature of the film experience and the director’s control over view viewer’s experience. They point to art in other media: to landscape painting and to 17th-century Dutch genre paintings of interiors. Not justified by realism — Can the interiors really be deprived of color? — and yet organized, the manipulation of color stands as a mystery to be fathomed through repeated viewings, reflection, and discussion.

Cueing Connoisseurship. Connoisseurs appreciate a work of art as a sensory, intellectual, and emotional experience first, and a clear gripping story second if not third or fourth. Cues inside and outside Sacrifice tell us to perceive it through the lens of art.

The official trailer from 1986 says nothing about the plot, suggesting the story was not a selling point for the target audience. Instead, the trailer consists of a single shot from the movie accompanied by mournful Bach music and a French-language voiceover. It ends with a list of awards the film has won.

Art Referring to Art & Artists. Connoisseurs understand unique artists by fitting them into the history of what other artists did with the medium, even comparing them to artists in other media. Tarkovsky himself promoted such a view by making a three-plus-hour black-and-white movie about a medieval icon painter: Andrei Rublev. (Andrei Rublev is black-and-white with some color insert shots at the end — the opposite of Sacrifice.)

Paintings also play a notable role in Sacrifice. The opening credits float over close-ups of a Da Vinci painting, and the film later shows the main character paging through a book of Russian icon paintings. Indeed, a whole Duke University M.A. thesis spends almost 70 pages analyzing the use of paintings in three Tarkovsky films.

The protagonist of SACRIFICE flips through a book containing reproductions of Russian icons.

Responses to Tarkovsky follow his lead by treating him as an artist and comparing him to other artists.

A video called “Andrei Tarkovsky — Poetic Harmony” on Channel Criswell uses clips from Tarkovsky’s films to make an argument about those films as works of art. “Poetic Harmony” emphasizes that art cannot be reduced to meaning: it’s an experience. Instead, such work is ‘explained’ (starting at 2:40) by finding a consistent visual language: namely, that Tarkovsky uses composition in specific ways, as well as using natural elements (water, earth, fire, air) and shots of decaying buildings.

And video by a 23-year-old writer named ‘Vugar Efendi’ compares shots in Tarkovsky and Kubrick films.

Sacrifice also refers to the work of Ingmar Bergman by using long-time Bergman personnel. It was shot by Sven Nykvist, a cinematographer who worked with Ingmar Bergman extensively between 1960 to 1984, and it stars Erland Josephson, who worked with Bergman extensively between 1958 and 1997. The film was also shot on an island near Faro Island, where Bergman shot several films.

Mixed Critical Reception

Works of art are sometimes ‘out of sync’ with their times. Their value is said to be ‘eternal’ — or at least to span a longer time frame than yearly box-office tallies and awards ceremonies. The very fact that a film is re-released or discussed decades after it was made suggests it the film is being considered more as a work of art than a work of commerce. Works of art live on: works of commerce get sequels.

Art’s Inefficiency. Upon its release, Sacrifice evoked mixed reactions from critics. Its virtues were appreciated, but it frustrated some critics. Different critics approached the film with different expectations — and sometimes the two frameworks even vied for dominance in the mind of the same critic.

Bickering TV critics Siskel and Ebert enacted the conflict between the framework of entertainment and that of art. Roger Ebert sees the movie as an allegory, calls it “difficult,” and admits that it’s “very long…[and] it might be an ordeal for some people to sit through.” Gene Siskel found “some beautiful images,” some parts “pointless,” and the whole film “very uneven”; whereas Ebert argues that Tarkovsky’s goal is to transform us: “the opposite of entertaining us.” Siskel tersely retorts “I got the message,” adding: it would be better if it were shorter.

The contrast couldn’t be clearer. Entertainment has a purpose which it fulfills efficiently. It wastes no time, and it should contain no ‘filler’: like a high-quality hot dog. But of course a work of art is not efficient. Rather, the experience is more important than the result. And this is not an honorific: it’s simply a description of the two frames of reference, sets of expectations, and habits of viewing.

Ebert’s November 21, 1986 review shows he’s highly aware of Tarkovsky as an artist. The critic compares the director to other artists.

There are moments when the resulting film, Sacrifice, looks uncannily like a work by Bergman, and I think that is intentional: Tarkovsky, the visitor, an exile from Russia, was working with Bergman’s materials and subjects in much the same way that an itinerant Renaissance painter might briefly stop and submerge himself in the school of a master.

Like a good connoisseur, Ebert puts Tarkovsky in an artistic tradition:

Yet Tarkovsky is a master, too. With Bergman, he is one of the five living filmmakers who have concerned themselves primarily with ultimate issues of human morality (the others are Akira Kurosawa, Satyaijit Ray and Robert Bresson). He is the greatest Russian filmmaker since Sergei Eisenstein….

And Ebert even makes a case for a movie that is not entertaining:

The movie is not easy to watch, and it is long to sit through. Yet a certain joy shines through the difficulty. Tarkovsky has obviously cut loose from any thought of entertaining the audience and has determined, in his last testament, to say exactly what he wants, in exactly the style he wants.

Mixed Feelings. If Siskel and Ebert had opposing views of the film (successful art vs. unsuccessful entertainment), other critics experienced both opposing views of the film almost in the very same breath. On May 22, 1987, Washington Post staff writer Desson Howe described the film as a tough slog.

NO BEATING about the booshska: “Sacrifice” is tough. It’s an allegory and features Swedish people talking death and alienation, in Swedish. But if you fight your way through, you may just feel the flush of achievement and walk away with a head full of memorable images.

Howe uses aesthetic terminology (“allegory,” “eloquence”) while also removing the film from the realm of the practical.

[Y]ou won’t leave “Sacrifice” (winner of last year’s Jury Prize at Cannes) indifferent to or without respect for his cinematic eloquence. He aims for the left brain — not the side that calculates Metro fares or helps you parallel-park.

As if one mixed review were not enough, the Post assigned two reviewers and published the reviews the same day. Staff writer Hal Hinson mixes positive and negative in the very same phrases: he calls the director “punishingly gifted” and the film “a sublime failure.” “For all its stunning, poetic imagery, it’s almost impossible to sit through.” And: “Sacrifice has moments of unparalleled visionary brilliance….Yet for every epiphany, Tarkovsky exacts his pound of tedium.”

Hinson clearly identifies the film as a work of art: abstract and emotional, comparable to art in other media (such as music). But this comparison quickly leads implying the movie is dead:

But in “Sacrifice,” passion expresses itself in terms of spirituality, of intensity of feeling, rather than in action. The rhythms in the film are contemplative and serene, almost monastic, like the rhythm of Gregorian chants. It has a slow-beating pulse; so slow, in fact, that at times, you may think that it has ceased altogether.

Hinton praises Tarkovsky’s technical skill but ultimately finds the director’s ask simply too big:

The movie’s final act, climaxing in an unbroken 6 1/2-minute burning-down-the-house sequence, is a marvel of sustained virtuosity. But ultimately the movie is an infuriating object. Tarkovsky’s demands on your attention span are so great that you are almost numbed to his mastery.
Director Andrei Tarkovsky fusses with a scale model he has built for the main set of SACRIFICE.

Fast Forward

20 years later, some critics still had mixed feelings. Upon the film’s re-release 20 years later in 2007, British Guardian critic Philip French finds his feelings still mixed:

In 1986 I was on the Cannes jury that gave the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice, his final film made in Swedish on Bergman’s Baltic island. Now re-released, it’s an immaculate, humourless, self-important, hectoring movie, a characteristically rebarbative masterwork by a cinematic poet.

(For those without handy access to a thesaurus, “rebarbative” means: repellent.)

Yet time, the very object of Tarkovsky’s art, has been kind to Sacrifice. The further the film is from us in time, the more it can be perceived as art rather than entertainment. History makes art. Looking back, Village Voice writer Sam Weisberg summarizes and accepts these opposing views

Upon its release 28 years ago, Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, Sacrifice, was variously called “stunningly beautiful” and “impossible to sit through” by critics. It is both.

Audiences might have come to the same conclusion: slow and ponderous are what Sacrifice is — and are part and parcel of its being a work of art. Sacrifice has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 83% and even higher audience score of 91%. In other words, what was once a painful contradiction (beautiful but slow) became a fact to be appreciated.

In 2007, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds time has changed his perceptions.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film from 1986, re-released for the 75th anniversary of his birth, looks to me quite different twenty years on.

Bradshaw calles Sacrifice “brilliant and audacious,” citing the final sequence with the six-plus-minute take as “more complex and ambiguous than it appeared at the time.”

Only a few years later in 2011, the Los Angeles TimesDennis Lim compares Tarkovsky to film artists like Michelangelo Antonioni, Andy Warhol, and Chantal Akerman:

The son of a poet, Tarkovsky made deliberate, cryptic films that dealt with such intangibles as the mysteries of existence, the contradictions of faith, the power of art and — most indelibly — the passing of time.

Slowly, a film about time, growing ever further removed from the flow of new entertainment products, eventually becomes perceived as what it always asked to be perceived as. Art is a way of looking, and history shapes our perceptions. And so the historical view is essential to understanding what makes a film, even one that’s not very entertaining, into art.

To call an entertaining film “art” then becomes in a way even more difficult. But that, as they say, is another story.

— Edward R. O’Neill

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