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Kino premieres on DVD two late films from a Russian master.

By Chris Herrington

MAY 29, 2000: 

The Mirror/The Sacrifice, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Kino

You know the rap on so-called art films -- dense, forbidding, serious, work to watch, and not at all "entertaining" in the traditional sense. American film-viewing habits are so isolationist and marketing-driven these days that even the films of easily enjoyable directors like Mike Leigh and John Sayles are saddled with the label, and thus sequestered off into a ghetto of small screens and limited runs. And foreign-language films? Forget it. Most open-minded American filmgoers would likely get a kick out of the work of directors such as Wong Kar-Wai and Takeshi Kitano, but their films are automatically deemed too difficult for the People's taste and are therefore virtually banned from most U.S. markets. It's a notion -- this distinction between art and entertainment -- that is mostly specious and that is continually used to justify the limited options granted American viewers. (Or to downplay the joys of the best pop cinema -- There's Something About Mary isn't "art," is it? Of course it is.) But even the most reluctant critic is forced to make the distinction sometimes -- and if there's ever been a director of "art films," late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky is the guy.

Tarkovsky, likely the most significant figure in Russian cinema outside of pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, is best known for three epic films he produced in the Sixties and Seventies: Andrei Rublev (1965), a speculative biopic of a 15th-century Russian painter of religious icons (that's right: icons); Solaris (1972), a science fiction "reply" to Kubrick's 2001 that explores inner more than outer space and that pointedly denies most of the pleasures of the genre; and Stalker (1978), a philosophical, decaying-future travelogue that picks up where David Lynch's Eraserhead leaves off.

These three films, all hovering around the three-hour mark, all magnificent in their way, but oh so dense and hard to get a handle on, comprise Tarkovsky's popular reputation, such as it is. All are relatively easy to find on video. The rest of Tarkovsky's relatively scant body of work (only seven features in all) is quite a bit more obscure, though now somewhat less so with Kino's DVD premier of two extremely personal works: the autobiographical The Mirror (1974) and his final film, the deathbed meditation The Sacrifice (1986). The Mirror is probably the least accessible, and The Sacrifice perhaps the most accessible film of Tarkovsky's career. (I haven't seen the debut My Name Is Ivan or the later Nostalghia.)

It may well be true that, as one critic wrote, Tarkovsky's films demand to be seen twice or not at all. On first viewing, The Mirror and The Sacrifice, even more so than his more prominent epics, are visually impressive puzzlers. The DVD transfer does wonders for Tarkovsky's striking visuals -- the trademark blend of color and black-and-white is much more beautiful on this version of The Mirror than on the muddy video transfers I've seen of Solaris and Stalker.

More poetry than prose, The Mirror is a stream-of-consciousness, autobiographical meditation on Tarkovsky's childhood and his mother's experience of political terror. Mixed footage focuses on a child's wartime exile, a memory of quarreling parents, and the narrator's mother's experience working for the state in Stalinist Russia -- filmed in a mixture of film stocks, with the same actress playing two roles and interspersed with stark newsreel footage. It's a heady, confusing mix of styles and subjects, an aesthetic that Village Voice critic J. Hoberman appropriately tagged "psychodramatic bricolage."

The Sacrifice, filmed in Sweden with Ingmar Bergman's longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, will be of particular interest to Bergman fans (a large group in which I do not include myself). Tarkovsky's final film, made as he was dying of cancer, The Sacrifice concerns both nuclear annihilation and individual mortality -- in other words, not exactly Duck Soup. A wealthy, educated Swedish family gathers in the country to celebrate the birthday of its patriarch, Alexander, but the celebration goes sour when news of the imminent outbreak of World War III reaches their remote retreat. In order to save his family -- and the rest of the world, too, though that seems a lesser concern -- Alexander enters into a Faustian bargain, sacrificing his own life. Narratively, The Sacrifice is a bit easier to grasp than Tarkovsky's other work, but filmed in imitation of Bergman's style, it doesn't leave as strong a visual impression. You may not care about 15th-century Russia or the creation of religious icons before or after viewing the almost elemental Andrei Rublev, but that film leaves its mark. The Sacrifice is a much more ordinary experience.

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