The most significant figure in all of postwar Soviet cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky died in 1986 at age 54, leaving behind only seven features, the first five produced in the Soviet Union and the last two in Italy and Sweden. 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.
He was hardly the first or only filmmaker to engage with questions of temporality in film. Michelangelo Antonioni (obsessed with ennui and empty spaces), Andy Warhol (given to provocatively long running times) and Chantal Akerman (fixated on everyday ritual and minutiae) all made important contributions to the "cinema of duration," to use a term coined by the critic André Bazin.
But Tarkovsky, whose famous long takes signal a profound mistrust of the rapid montage of revolutionary Soviet cinema, was perhaps the most single-minded believer in the transcendent ability of the moving image to express what he called "the course of time within the frame." He spoke of "the pressure of time" and described the process of finding a film's rhythm as "sculpting in time" — a phrase that provided the title for his collection of essays.
These are no longer novel concepts in art cinema. Many of today's great directors — Hungary's Béla Tarr, Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Alexander Sokurov, the Russian director most often called Tarkovsky's successor — make movies that in different ways respect and reflect the passage of time.
That said, lesser talents have adopted the long-take style as easy shorthand, an automatic bid for significance. Just as problematic, some impatient critics have rushed to classify any movie with a contemplative pace under the reductive rubric of "slow cinema" or, worse yet, written off all such films as boring and alienating, the province of elitist snobs.
While Tarkovsky has been a clear influence on many, his cosmic poetry remains inimitable. His ghostly sci-fi parable "Solaris" (1972) was recently issued on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, and his final film, "The Sacrifice" (1986), makes its DVD premiere this week, on standard-definition and Blu-ray editions from Kino.
Premiered at Cannes half a year before its director's death, "The Sacrifice" is often called a last testament. Tarkovsky completed it knowing he had terminal cancer, and he dedicated it to his son "with hope and confidence."
But while the film, which stares into the maw of mortality and apocalypse, has the grandeur of a final summation, it is far from neat or definitive, and despite what its title might suggest, it is not exactly a simple allegory of Christian atonement and self-sacrifice.
"The Sacrifice" unfolds over a 24-hour period, as friends and family gather to celebrate the birthday of Alexander (Erland Josephson), a wealthy actor turned professor who lives on a desolate Swedish island. The setting evokes Ingmar Bergman, one of Tarkovsky's favorite filmmakers, as does the involvement of Josephson and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, both Bergman collaborators.
The festivities coincide with the outbreak of World War III, and in the grip of a "sickening animal fear," Alexander strikes a deal with God, promising to sever all his worldly ties if the extinction of mankind is averted.
Leonardo da Vinci's painting "Adoration of the Magi," seen in the opening credits and referenced in the film, depicts the ceding of a pagan world to a Christian one. Tarkovsky's theological scheme is not as clear-cut: Alexander is an atheist who turns to God, but salvation depends on persuading a witch to sleep with him, or so he's told by the Nietzsche-quoting postman who arrives bearing telegrams and perhaps a divine message or two.
The concluding annihilation is powerful not least for its ambiguity: an act of faith, madness and transfiguration.
Given the sheer beauty and unwieldy philosophical ambition of Tarkovsky's films, it's not too far-fetched to suggest that his true heir is Terrence Malick — a filmmaker whose approach to space and time is fragmented where Tarkovsky's is unified but who shares with the Russian a mystical connection to nature and the elements and a compulsion to pose unanswerable questions with utmost seriousness and sincerity. ("The Sacrifice" opens and closes with the image of what you might call a tree of life.)
More than most filmmakers, both have molded the language of cinema to their own ends. Their ultimate project — to find concrete expression for the spiritual — is perhaps a perverse one. It's telling that they have inspired similar responses, a mix of cult-like reverence and hostile derision.
Both belong to the increasingly rare breed of artists who dare to think of art as a spiritual quest, who risk ridicule as they search for the sublime.