Then, on a whim, the poetry of the world, ripe with beauty and mystery, blooms in front of us. Everything is simply as it is, lively and talking to us.
A child plants a tree, an atheist neals before an unknown God, a life-long silence broken by a woman’s scream: This is the way the world ends. Here, two bodies suspended, he awakes and awaits, a house burned. For life is—Time flows, we return to silence, and the tree planted continues to grow. As Andrei Tarkovsky claims in Sculpting in Time, “There are people who want to know about everything in the minutest detail, like accountants or lawyers. But show a toe sticking out of a hole in a sock to a poet and it is enough to produce an image of the whole world in him,” the visionary artist is composing not stories but poetry through his film.1 Just as a line of poetry is able to transform the formulated language and speak of the ineffable, a finite frame in Tarkovsky’s 1986 film The Sacrifice opens up an infinite universe of introspection, imagination, and enlightenment, bringing past, present, and future together in a revelatory harmony. His cinematic poetry creates an alternate perspective in film watching, where logic is stupefied and intuition becomes the only guide. In order words, Tarkovsky wants his audience not to analyze but to feel, and subsequently, his goal as a director becomes not to narrate but to transcend. Through his poetic approach to The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky creates an original account of the material world that rises above the physical reality: the traditional understanding of time, and the long-established divisions between subject and object, conscious and subconscious, and cause and effect.
Things are transcended only because there exists something to be transcended. The transcendence and the transcended, therefore, cannot be separated at all. With this said, the overlaps between reality and cinema are, in principle, the precondition for a film to go beyond its bounded reality. Nathaniel Dorsky affirms this overlap in Devotional Cinema, stating that “film’s physical properties seemed so attuned to our metabolism that I began to think of film as a metaphor, a direct and intimate model, for our being.”2 According to Dorsky, the essential qualities of all motion pictures, before any form of transcendence, are grounded in the way human beings construct their sense of reality. The Sacrifice supports this argument by displaying two important characteristics of cinema: internal vision seeing external objects and intermittence.
As the audience sits in darkness and watches an illuminated screen, the process of film-viewing aligns with the very nature of human vision: We see the outside world from the dark theater of our skulls, which then symbolizes our mechanism of perceiving external objects with internal visions.3 A potentially profound film, under such a context, must contain the balance of the subjective view of the filmmaker and the exterior objectivity. Take one of the first scenes of The Sacrifice as an example. The protagonist, Alexander, is delivering a monologue to his son while the camera pans at an almost undetectable speed over the two and their surroundings. The scene preserves the subject matter, as the shot is simple and nearly still, detached from all traces of artificiality and artistic ploy. However, while it presents things the way they are, the scene is not an arbitrary slice of life, as it also embedded the artist’s vision. The content of Alexander’s speech, telling his son that a daily ritual can be world-changing, echoes the last scene, where his son continues the tree-planting ritual that they have started from the beginning of the film. As Sean Martin writes that The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s call for pursuing spiritual responsibility over material goods, Alexander’s speech is not at all random but in fact, one of the very elements that strengthen the spiritual theme and make the film a parable.4 Through such a balance between the director’s view and the subject matter, Sacrifice reflects the reality of the human vision.
The intermittence in Sacrifice also results from the reality of human nature. As the cinematic sound speed is twenty-four frames per second, films are never solid entities. Instead, they are series filled with suspension and alteration, which resembles the way we humans experience the world. As Dorsky writes, “life is full of gaps.”.5 In this sense, for a film to be true, its montage must have enough blanks for the audience to fill in to respect the intermittence of life, which is perfectly exemplified in The Sacrifice. In a scene where Alexander is sitting on the grass, talking to himself, we are first presented with a continuous long shot. We see his son, “The Little Man” crawling around his father while Alexander pays no attention to him. Then, the scene is interrupted with a shot of wind passing through the grass without the two characters in the frame. The transition is almost unnoticeable because Alexander’s monologue is unceasingly present in the background. However, it is not until the film cuts back to Alexander that we realize “The Little Man” is missing and that an omission has just taken place. This echoes perfectly with Dorsky’s example of people driving a car in real life while spacing out: “six blocks, two red lights, and a left turn later you return to your driving and think, ‘Who was driving? How did I do that? Where was I?’”6
The Sacrifice, like many other accomplished films, has, therefore, the potential to be transcendental not only because of its complexity but because of its cinematic qualities that are reflections of our reality. It is only after we have recognized this affinity between cinema and reality that we can account for cinema’s revealing of the depth of our reality—in other words, its transcendence of reality.
A few decades before The Sacrifice, Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) conjured up an equally poetic world. With its slow-paced narration and minimalistic camera movements, the film aspired to transcendence through its installation of the Zen virtues. Portraying mu and stasis, the Japanese film fosters a sense of universal oneness, allowing all to transcend the subject-object division. While Tarkovsky was an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as Paul Schrader clarifies in Transcendental Style in Film, “Zen is not an organized religion . . . but a way of living.” It is then reasonable to analyze the poetic transcendence of The Sacrifice through the lens of Zen culture and as a film in the lineage of Tokyo Story.7
One basic principle of Zen expressed in the two films is mu, also known as the conception of negation. This is because both Ozu and Tarkovsky favored the use of stillness, silence, and emptiness, and see them as active elements in their work. In Tokyo Story, the camera never moves and is almost always positioned at the level of a person seated on a tatami. Quiet shots of houses, temples, ships, rivers, mountains, and people contemplating—all examples of what Schrader calls “coda’s—fill the gaps between dialogues without any apparent intention. Similarly, The Sacrifice is from beginning to end, a series of incredibly slow camera movements that can almost be mistaken as still shots. Background music is rare, and dialogues are from time to time replaced by silence or diegetic sounds. A religious painting, an abandoned car, a child laying under a tree: Motionless images in The Sacrifice are similar to codas as they portray a strong sense of absence in the midst of words and actions. However, it is exactly this emptiness contrasting with actions that grant the two films transcendent power. In Schrader’s book, Ozu’s back and forth transition between indoor conversations and outdoor still lifes is connected to the structure of haiku, a type of Japanese poetry. In one of Basho’s famous haiku, the sound of a frog jumping into the still pond intensifies the silence, giving the latter an ineffable weight echoing into infinity.8 Parallel to the interweaving of pauses and statements in poetry, the dialogues and the silent codas in both films give each other meaning. The mu, shown as the poetic emptiness in Tokyo Story and Sacrifice, is, therefore, an active presence that speaks of the inexpressible and undefinable.
According to Schrader, mu can then be accountable for Tokyo Story’s transcendence as it is the agent for stasis, which is a state of unity transformed from contradictory emotions. Tokyo Story reaches statis through its final codas, which connote oneness. The father gives his daughter-in-law a watch from his recently deceased wife, and the daughter-in-law thanks him. Then the father expresses how genuinely he wants her to be happy. The camera returns to the daughter bursting into tears. Then we see the father saying how it is strange that the daughter-in-law has done the most for him and his wife, even more than their own children. The girl continues to cry, and the shot shifts to a series of codas: children coming out of school, a teacher checking their work, and a train passing through the village. The codas are still and empty, while we as the audience are fully present in the scene because of what happened previously. On the common ground of emptiness and presence, these still-life views follow a poetic rhythm and manifest a divine sense of beauty. They take in the strong, conflicting emotions of the characters in the previous scene and transform them into an expression of something deeper than the emotions themselves–something unified, lasting, and transcendent. The Sacrifice also reaches stasis and consequently, transcendence, in its ending scene. Immediately after the burning house collapses, the scene cuts to “The Little Man” planting the tree we see at the beginning of the film. We then see the ambulance driving Alexander past his son while the “witch,” Maria, simultaneously cycles past them. This is followed by a still shot of the Little Man lying under the tree speaking for the first time, “In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?”9 Then the camera slowly moves up, lingering on the top of the tree till the film ends. This poetic sequence again takes in the conflicting emotions of three different characters and elevates them into a unified source of divinity that is beyond any individual emotion and human finality. As the young generation plants a tree immediately after the collapse of the house of the old generation, the subjective identities have subsequently lost their individual value in a larger picture of generations. Echoing Tokyo Story, everything merges in an ineffable oneness in the final moments of The Sacrifice. The movie ends, as well as individual characters and experiences. Yet the tree continues to grow, just like the shared emotions, the unceasing cycle of time, and the infinite and eternal sense of being. The film becomes more than a mere reflection of human metabolism–the balance of subjective view and objective matters–as there no longer exists a division between the inner and outer worlds. The film is no longer just mimicry of reality, it transcends it.
Motion pictures, the name being quite self-explanatory, are essentially media of the movement of time. Tarkovsky, as the first to emphasize this nature of cinema, aspires to study time, experiment with time, and be in time through his films. The Sacrifice, in this sense, also transcends the intermittence of daily reality, as its conception of time is no longer limited by the chronological terms of a past-present-future continuum.
If we reduce The Sacrifice into a chronological narrative, it becomes this: Alexander and his son plant a tree, Alexander prays to God to stop the war, he then makes love to Maria the “witch.” Afterward, everything comes back to normal, and his son continues to water the tree. However, that would be a story, not a poem that contains transcendental power. In fact, laying out events in a logical order is the same as breaking down the vertical flow of a poem, lining up individual sections into one horizontal bluntness, and abandoning the space for the ineffable. As Deleuze once wrote, “the only subjectivity is time, non-chronological time grasped in its foundation, and it is we who are internal to time, not the other way around”; it is only when we see time not as a linear line but as an enveloping oneness that we are able to appreciate the subtlety and transcendence in Tarkovsky’s poetic world.10
When Alexander makes love to Maria the “witch,” a nonlogical montage of surreal images dissolves our systematic knowledge of time and revolutionizes the way we position ourselves in it. First, an apocalyptic scene where a crashed car lies in a plaza returns to us after its first appearance at the start of the film, arousing a vague feeling that the past is the present. Maria then appears in Alexander’s wife’s clothes while the recurring religious painting appears again. This time, the Holy Maria holding a baby in the painting parallels Maria the “witch” holding Alexander. He who is now an old man whimpers like a baby in the arms of his female counterpart. Intuition then reveals to us that Maria is not only his lover but simultaneously his mother and his Saint. This coexistence of identities—one of the present, one of the past, and one of eternity—brings the supposedly separated time periods into one unity. The cause-and-effect relationship between events is then nullified through this sequence, as none happened before nor caused the others. Maria is not Alexander’s mother figure before she is his lover but is both at the same time, making the cause and the effect become one thing. Then the scene shifts to Maria chasing chickens naked while Alexander’s wife stands still at the other end of the corridor, watching Alexander rise from his bed. Subjects who are not supposed to be in the same room are now gathered together. Like a poem, the space conjures up a sublime riddle, denying our logical mindset and confusing our sense of location in time. Bergson writes, “Memory is continually preserved and changed in the same instance by the contingent present and never remains the same. Just as the past is discontinuous, so time is nonchronological, while the future is both to come and in process of creation now.”11 Alexander’s perception of his past is then constantly changed by his present, making the two time periods interdependent, inseparable, and eventually, interchangeable. As Schrader comments on Tarkovsky’s films, arguing that through their narratives we are not “getting there” but “being here,” The Sacrifice has then transcended our reality in the sense that it positioned us not in a specific place in time but simply, in time.12 Recognizing this, the division between past, present, and future disappears, and all that is left is the presence of being that has risen above the third dimension, spiraling into the infinite oneness of time.
Tarkovsky’s poetry of time and his transcendental spirit is so powerful that it has been inherited by many filmmakers that come after him, such as Alexander Sokurov with his feature The Second Circle (1990). The film’s first scene is a man in black being devoured by the snowstorm. It is transcendental because despite knowing the plot, we do not know for sure when exactly this scene takes place. In fact, its sentimental hue has tinted the entire film that it transcends the boundaries of a before-after rationale and therefore makes it reasonable to placeit anywhere in the film’s chronology. Similarly, the final montage of the film does not demonstrate a linear timeline either. The scene goes from the protagonist moving out of his room, to a house burning in the distance, and back to his room while the light extinguishes by itself. Following a linear logic, the third part of this scene should switch places with the second. However, if we abandon such linearity, a sense of transcendence is accomplished as the individual sorrow of the protagonist has been elevated to something beyond the limit of his physical space and sense of time, and has become something that is universal. Just like Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, time in The Second Circle, although to a lesser degree, folds backward like a piece of paper bent, shadowing its body, anchoring the past and looping the present back to the future.
When time becomes a unifying concept and we can no longer reduce it into a before-after nor a cause-and-effect vocabulary, the idea of intermittence is then transcended. There is no longer a gap between a previous scene and the next because the previous is the next, and pauses and alterations are in unity with the narration. As such, The Sacrifice and films alike are no longer a reflection of the intermittence in human reality but a transcendence of it.
Conclusion: In Defense of Nuance
Tarkovsky firmly believes that “we cannot comprehend the totality of the universe.”13 To draw hard boundaries, to ascribe definitions, and to break such totality is, therefore, to disregard, to limit, to erase, and in short, to depreciate the fluidity and the nuance of life. He then continues, “but the poetic image is able to express that totality.”fn]Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 106.[/fn] The poetic fabric of The Sacrifice, its stillness that merges subject and object, its nonchronology that blurs the before and the after, is then a defense of that totality in life. They all speak for the ineffable oneness. This is what brings forth in the audience our renunciation of the bounded material world and connects us to the unifying sense of transcendence. It is when we relinquish the control of logic and let the nuance flow naturally in things that can not be defined by earthly concepts that we discover the hidden side of reality. Then, on a whim, the poetry of the world, ripe with beauty and mystery, blooms in front of us. Everything is simply as it is, lively and talking to us.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair (University of Texas Press, 1989).
- Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema (Tuumba Press, 2003), 261.
- Dorsky, Devotional Cinema, 261.
- Sean Martin, Andrei Tarkovsky (Oldcastle Books, 2011), 9.
- Dorsky, Devotional Cinema, 269.
- Dorsky, Devotional Cinema, 269.
- Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (University of
California Press, 2018), 55.
- Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, 56-59.
- The Sacrifice, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Sandrew, 1986).
- Gilles Deluze quoted in Christopher Kul-Want, Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader (Columbia University Press, 2019), 35.
- Henri Bergson quoted in Kul-Want, Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou, 35.
- Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film, 8.
- Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 106.