The “Sacrifice” (3) remake

“The Banishment” written by William Saroyan (book),
Artyom Melumian (script), dir: Andrei Zvyagintsev

How to analyze a great directorial talent? Luckily for those of us who like to ponder the nature of things, narrative achievements in cinema usually inspire works that try to follow them. When comparing the two films in which one is trying to achieve the mastery of its inspiration we get the tools for study what makes a director great.

One of them I call “the preposterousness test.”

It can be applied to “The Banishment” which is a disguised attempt to remake “The Sacrifice” by Andrei Tarkovsky. Similarities are big and small, the internal and the superficial. In "The Banishment", as in the “Sacrifice”, the hero is called Alexander. As in the original we’ve got a house in the country and a mailman - this time however relegated to a lesser part. There are also attempts to copy visuals from the original. One long (LONG!) shot of water floating down hill is a particularly blatant try. Blatant and painful to watch. (Otherwise the film is beautifully photographed.) Why one works and another doesn't could be a treatise in itself.

Visually, from the first image of a slow camera move featuring a solitary tree in a barren landscape (the frame above) we know this is going to be a dialog with “The Sacrifice”, which opens with a similar image and the same camera move. But Zvyagintsev is too smart to copy the Tarkovsky’s image exactly. He stages different action around the tree and builds up a different rhythm for the first few minutes. Yet, this first image establishes an alchemical connection between the films.

The most important commonality however comes from the stories told: both films are about the sacrifice needed to save our hypocritical lives. To carry out the sacrificial deed Tarkovsky chooses Alexander, Zvyagintsev flips the story inside out and selects Alexander’s wife.

So what's "the preposterous test?" It compares the abilities to narrate a truly insane and unrealistic element of a story. A master is able to validate and present as true a genuinely absurd in a narrative. When a lesser storyteller attempts a similar action the viewers go “hehhh?", “how come?,” “well, I don’t know about that”. In short, they don’t buy the way a preposterous element is presented.

Such is the case in these two films. Zvyagintsev does not convince that the sacrifice in his film is psychologically plausible (unless the woman is mentally ill, which would undermine the whole point.) It is a pity, since the beautiful Maria Bonnevie does an amazing job. Tarkovsky on the other hand pulls off the impossible: in his film, for the sake of sacrifice, time gets reversed as the greatest gift. The director uses many tricks to accomplish this. Since I have already mentioned one, the bicycle, let me conclude with a quote from Saroyan, the man whose writing inspired “The Banishment” and who, via such a strange connection, could shake hands with Tarkovsky. Something tells me that these two, although so different in their styles and a sense of humor (Tarkovsky has none), would really hit it off, as they seem to be spiritual cousins.

First of all, my bikes were always rebuilt second-hand bikes. They were lean, hard, tough, swift, and designed for usage. I rode them with speed and style. I found out a great deal about style form riding them. Style in writing, I mean. Style in everything. I did not ride for pleasure. I rode to get somewhere, and I don't mean from the house on San Benito Avenue in Fresno to the public Library there.'
- William Saroyan, "The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills"

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