BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE MIRROR & THE SACRIFICE

By • Apr 10th, 2000 •

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Controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini once wrote an influential essay entitled Cinema of Poetry. Boiled down to its essence, Pasolini’s argument was that someone sitting down to read a poem does not get upset because the poet refused to provide the realistic characters, believable dialogue, and straight-forward plot that are expected in a novel. Most readers know that poems are frequently abstract, symbolic, and tight-fisted with their overt meanings. Why then do people expect clearly poetic films to behave like conventional Hollywood blockbusters? Pasolini hoped that film viewers who approached a work of cinematic poetry with the same mindset they reserve for literary poems would find similar pleasures.

The work of legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky could function as a perfect illustration of Pasolini’s essay. Like his idol Robert Bresson, Tarkovsky’s films are a constant search for truth. However, it is not the surface reality of documentary that interests Tarkovsky; he was seeking the deeper truth that lies within the human soul. His quest led him to constantly push the boundaries of cinema, creating luminous, hypnotic cinematic poems.

In the first scene of The Mirror (1974), a documentary television show depicts a young man being cured of his stuttering through hypnosis. For Tarkovsky, this film functioned in a similar manner, with his clear-eyed look into a very revealing mirror signaling a new flowering of his cinematic voice. The Mirror is Tarkovsky’s most personal work, and one of his finest. Skillfully intertwining shimmering black and white, earthy color, and historical footage, he transports us into a captivating universe where dreams and memories are as important as dramatic events. The film abounds in Tarkovsky’s trademark elemental imagery of fire, water and earth, revealing their biographical roots. In a tightly packed 106 minutes, he takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey through his life interwoven with crucial events in 20th century Russian history. Moving effortlessly back and forth through time, Tarkovsky plunges us into his parents’ troubled marriage, his mother’s fear during the Stalinist terror, the deprivations of wartime, as well as his own broken marriage. Although the film has no straightforward plot, Tarkovsky’s intense and poetic evocation of each crucial moment’s emotional truth keeps the film absolutely gripping. After watching The Mirror, viewers will be unable to recite many “facts” about Tarkovsky’s past; instead they have experienced the essence of his life. Outwardly, The Mirror is Tarkovsky’s most private vision, but ultimately, it is his most universal work.

The poems heard at various times during the movie were written by Tarkovsky’s father, the noted poet Arsenii Tarkovsky, and are read by the author.

The DVD transfer is very good with no visible artifacts. The film is presented full-screen which feels right for a work that makes extensive use of newsreels and other archival footage.

Like a number of Kino releases, this disc features a stylish and attractive cover designed by Bret Wood (co-author of the recent book ÔForbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation FilmÕ), and comes in a keepcase. Kino on Video DVD’s are often skimpy on extras, but The Mirror literally has none. The English-language subtitles are non-removable. A pleasing menu offers easy access to the chapter stops.

After his defection to the West in the early-eighties, Tarkovsky worked first in Italy, then finally, in Sweden. Ill with cancer during production, Tarkovsky knew that The Sacrifice (1986) would probably be his final work, and he expressed himself in an uncharacteristically blunt and impatient manner. Tarkovsky felt that our modern technological society was racing towards an apocalypse and could only be saved by a return to spirituality. The Sacrifice was his impassioned expression of that idea.

The film revolves around a gathering of family and friends at a remote house on the Swedish seashore. They are there to celebrate the birthday of Alexander, the family patriarch, and a noted intellectual. The celebration is shattered by news reports that World War III is about to begin. Faced with impending doom, Alexander pleads with god to save them. He becomes convinced that only a selfless personal sacrifice can bring salvation in this time of crisis.

The Sacrifice is not among Tarkovsky’s finest works. The film’s directness makes it far easier to understand than The Mirror, for example, but it also sets off fewer sparks in the viewer’s mind. Nonetheless, this is gripping filmmaking. The sense of doom after the war announcements is overpowering, and the final epiphany is very moving.

Overall, Kino has done an excellent job on the DVD, which comes in a pleasant keepcase. Pleasingly letterboxed at a ratio of approximately 1:66, the disc beautifully reproduces the film’s subtle color palette. The disc has a simple and attractive menu with a satisfactory, but unimpressive, number of chapter stops. English language subtitles are non-removable. The disc is only marred by two glitches. The first is a very noticeable layer-change approximately twenty minute before the film’s ending. The second, more serious error, is the virtual non-appearance of the movie’s final subtitle. This reviewer had to run the disc frame-by-frame to read the subtitle, and even then it was difficult. This subtitle’s disappearing act would not even be worth mentioning if it did not involve the film’s final moment, distracting the viewer at a crucial time. Hopefully, Kino will remedy this problem soon.

Kino’s usual lack of extras problem is solved in one stroke by the inclusion of Michal Leszczylowski’s feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Leszczylowski, who edited The Sacrifice, offers an eye-opening look at the director at work. The documentary presents us with an artist who is passionate, stubborn, and intensely detail-oriented as he conjures up his vision in images and sounds. A number of interviews allow viewers to hear Tarkovsky’s ideas in his own words. British actor Brian Cox reads excerpts from Tarkovsky’s published writings.

These movies will not appeal to everyone but they are essential viewing for any film-lovers looking for work that shatters the conventions of traditional filmmaking and takes us somewhere we have never been before.

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