Below, students of journalism, international studies and religious studies in Media School Professor of Practice Elaine Monaghan’s “Covering Ireland” reporting class write collaboratively about a showing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, a film packed with allegories, religious imagery and thoughts about death, fear, hope and materialism. As you will read, the student reporters found an audience in deep reflection and struggling to understand the film’s meaning for them personally, and more broadly.
The following portion was written by Audrey Deiser, Maggie Slaughter, Nick Trombola, and Katherine Zubler.
First-year PhD student Zackary Dunivin has seen several Tarkovsky films. He even has The Sacrifice, the director’s final film, saved on his computer desktop with plans to watch it. But the recent screening of the film baffled even Dunivin, a seasoned fan.
“I felt [The Sacrifice] was more confusing than any other Tarkovsky film,” he said.
Film buffs and novices alike echoed his confusion Jan. 29 at the IU Cinema. The showing is part of the film series Representing Religion: Ireland, The Troubles and Beyond. Professor of practice Elaine Monaghan curated the series for a Media School Field Experience course. Students will study perceptions of religion in media throughout the semester and travel to Ireland over spring break.
Although The Sacrifice caused confusion, it also encouraged serious reflection. Mr. Alexander, the protagonist, spends the film grappling with the beginnings of another world war. His actions compelled audience members to consider an essential question: in times of crisis, who or what do people look to?
Simon Tunny, a freshman, said the film’s dialogue intends to spur conversations about faith in times of crisis among people of diverse backgrounds.
This intended interaction among viewers is mirrored in the film by the characters. Mr. Alexander, an aging professor, discusses spirituality and modernity with Otto, the local postman.
Tunny said any member of the audience could relate to Mr. Alexander’s experience, “in the sense that he is looking at religion through various means.”
“But,” he said, “I think that the questions he poses … that’s relevant to all of us.”
Other members of the audience followed a similar school of thought. Some viewers said scenes involving the characters looking for comfort from a loved one or divine entity impacted them deeply.
Jeff Wagner, an IU alumnus, said Mrs. Adelaide’s grief struck him most. In the scene, she collapses on the floor and weeps about the announcement of war. She only calms down when Victor, a family friend and doctor, administers a sedative.
“I thought the agony of the scene … was more emotionally powerful and affecting,” he said.
The soundscape of film is an important sensory dimension. An usher for IU Cinema and junior in finance, Joe Harrell expressed an appreciation for Tarkovsky’s sonic choices.
“I really loved the sparse use of music,” he said. “It made it so that when the music did come on, it was much more dramatic and meaningful.”
Tunny said that although the film was disorienting at times, the actors’ vocal performances offered some clarity.
“The inflection in the tone of the voices said more than what the text actually displayed,” said Tunny. “They didn’t show a lot of information, they just showed a lot of noises.”
Employing sound to navigate a film set in darkness mirrored the characters’ use of sound in a time of darkness.
The film closes on Mr. Alexander’s son speaking his first and only lines in the film. The boy was previously mute from a vocal cord operation. He’s lying beneath a barren tree he just watered, one he helped his father plant the previous morning.
He says, “In the beginning was the Word,” a quote from the Gospel of John. “Why is that, Papa?”
The formulation of new questions after watching and reflecting upon a Tarkovsky film is a common experience, one shared by Harrell.
“I think I’m gonna have to see it again,” he said.
The following portion was written by Sophia Saliby, Carter Barrett, Jack Evans, and Sydney DeLong.
At a crucial moment in Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, comes news of impending nuclear war. The characters’ reactions define them for the rest of the film — the protagonist spirals into existential crisis, his wife breaks down and a doctor tranquilizes her and her daughter.
A recent restoration of the 1986 film screened Monday at the IU Cinema, and the director, Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, is revered among film enthusiasts for his distinctive style — long takes, high drama and religious undertones.
Despite his status, the film’s portrayal of women left some in Monday’s audience — diverse in gender and age range — questioning why these figures were at times hysterical and sexualized, though others commended Tarkovsky’s use of characters as cultural and religious symbols.
The film follows the protagonist, Alexander, for whom the news of war prompts an a search for salvation. But significant scenes focus on the wife, Adelaide, and her hysterics when news of World War III breaks, as well as their maid Maria, whose purported mystical powers draw Alexander’s attention.
IU graduate Ava Couden and IU student Ben Helmrich had differing opinions about the women in the movie.
“I mean, I don’t think in this film, it’s very controversial or anything,” Helmrich said. “For me, I thought the portrayal [of women] was pretty fitting of the characters.”
”I always think it’s fun when male characters think they’re going to find salvation in having sex with a woman,” Couden said, sarcastically. “The hysterical wife in general is not cute.”
In a 1983 interview with Irena Brežná, Tarkovsky said that only two of his films at that point, Mirror and Solaris, had female characters.
“And in those it is clear, of course, that the woman is in a dependent relationship in the man,” he said.
Later in the interview, Tarkovsky said he views a woman’s capacity for self-sacrifice when it comes to love as her greatest quality. When Brežná brought up the potential danger of a woman completely losing herself to love, he said women who seek equal rights are only looking for an end to self-sacrifice.
Tarkovsky offered perspective on the two central women in The Sacrifice in his 1986 book, Sculpting in Time, published shortly before his death. He called Adelaide “one of the causes of [Alexander’s] tragedy.” Maria is her antithesis, whose love is presented to Alexander as a “gift from God.”
Tatyana Kuzmina, 61, saw The Sacrifice for the first time Monday, she said, though she’s seen nearly all of the director’s other films, including the art-film touchstones Stalker and Mirror. Kuzmina, who lives in Bloomington, was born and raised in Belarus, when the nation was part of the Soviet Union, and she recognized the Soviet sensibility in Tarkovsky’s symbolism and in the characters.
The fear of nuclear war that grips Tarkovsky’s characters reminded her of the fear she saw in her own mother during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, she said. To her, Adelaide’s hysterics seemed an embodiment of the Cold War dread.
“The war causes such thoughts — ‘What will happen to me?’” she said.
She found the film — its characters and symbolism — moving, she said, and believed it would stick with her.
“This is not a film for two hours just to watch,” she said. “It is forever.”
Please join us for the remaining films in the IU Cinema series Representing Religion: Ireland, The Troubles and Beyond, when the students will continue to pool skills and knowledge as they prepare for a spring break reporting trip in Ireland. Their reports will be revealed at an April 24-26 symposium in Bloomington, part of Monaghan’s “Perceptions of Religion” project which is funded by an American Council of Learned Societies’ program designed to connect scholars of religion and journalists.