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The Sacrifice – Tarkovsky

September 4, 2015

TSacThis is a very intense film.

In How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films, Higgins wrote: Tarkovskv knew what he was doing when he made The Sacrifice, a surreal spiritual journey on the cusp of the world’s end. The central character asks, “Am I alive or dead?” the answer comes back, We don’t have to think like that an more,” It proposes that there are no answers, only choices. To choose God above all else, when the chips are down, when the evidence is against us, to hope recall the for something bigger than ourselves, to muster faith that what we have believed is real, to times when we actually did believe it.

Tarkovsky’s final film was still in editing stage when its director was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The director’s dedicated the work – with “hope and confidence” – to his young son, Andrejusja.

The film had a long gestation. The idea first came to Tarkovsky whilst he was still in the Soviet Union and long before he had even thought about making Nostalgia . It was originally titled The witch and the focal point, as Tarkovsky himself recounts, “was to be the story of how the hero, Alexander, was to be cured of a fatal disease as a result of a night spent in bed with a witch.”

He later altered a number of details, changed the name to The sacrifice and added an apocalyptic nuclear-war scenario.

After a long credits sequence superimposed over a detail of Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the magi (which is accompanied by the “Erbarme dich” of Bach’s St. Matthew passion and which ends with a slow upward pan along the central tree in the painting), the film begins with Alexander and his young son busy trying to plant a withered tree against a luminous sea, with the father all the while recounting something resembling a Zen parable to his son. Otto, the postman, soon arrives on his bicycle, bearing a number of congratulatory telegrams. We thus learn that it is Alexander’s fiftieth birthday and he and his family are soon to be joined in their celebrations by both the postman and Victor, a close family friend and a medical doctor who has recently performed a throat operation on the young boy, or “Little Man” as he’s continually called, which has left the boy unable to speak.

Alexander, a retired actor and now successful journalist, philosopher and academic, is outwardly calm and collected but actually undergoing something of a personal crisis and patently afflicted by what one can only call existential malaise. In the course of the day’s rather demure “celebrations” we learn more about Alexander and his past life – and also about Otto’s experience and knowledge of paranormal phenomena – until, abruptly, in the early evening, an ominous TV broadcast appears to confirm that the sound of jets (or missiles), which we have earlier heard streak overhead, is related to the definitive outbreak of an all-out nuclear war. As the child sleeps in his cot and the rest of the company, muted and despondent, settles downstairs to await the end, Alexander in the upstairs study of his beloved house makes a vow to God: if God (in whom until this point he has not believed) will perform the impossible and restore the world to its previous state, Alexander will henceforth live in silence, forsaking everything that is dearest to him, including his young son and his beloved family home.

Later that night Otto, the postman, visits Alexander in his study and urges him to go immediately to sleep with Maria, a part-time servant girl who lives on the other side of the island but whom we have seen earlier in the film in Alexander’s house and who, Otto insists, is a witch, “of the best kind”. This, Otto declares – is the only way to return things to their previous state. Alexander borrows the postman’s rickety bike and, in the dead of night, cycles to Maria’s house. After ritually washing his hands and then recounting a pathos-laden story connected with his mother, Alexander is able to convince the meek and accomodating Maria to make love with him. Their sexual union concludes in a levitation of their entwined bodies which is strongly reminiscent of similar scenes in Tarkovsky’s earlier films, e.g. Mirror and Solaris

The Sac 2 When Alexander awakes in the morning, back in the study of his own house, he discovers that electrical power has been restored and it appears in fact to be the previous day. Ostensibly in order to keep his vow to God, he now tricks the others away from the house and then methodically but gleefully sets fire to it. As the house burns in a long and sustained conflagration Alexander scampers about through the surrounding sodden ground, behaving halfway between a madman and a naughty child. The fire brings back the bewildered family who try unsuccessfully to restrain his antics while, from the other side, Maria, the “good witch”, also appears. An ambulance (somehow) immediately arrives, and after some semi-comical to-ing and fro-ing – Alexander is also now respecting his vow of silence and is thus unable to explain his actions – he is eventually bundled into the vehicle and driven away. We follow the ambulance as it drives past the “Little Man”, watering the tree which they had been planting at the beginning of the film (the previous or the same day? we don’t know).

Maria, who has also reached this spot on bicycle to catch a final glimpse of the ambulance, watches in silence as it disappears into the distance and then cycles off along the same path from which Otto had originally come. “Little Man”, lying peacefully and leisurely nestled at the foot of the tree, looks at the sky through its branches and utters his first and only words: “In the beginning was the Word. Why was that, papa?” The film ends with a slow upward pan along the tree’s trunk (repeating the upward pan along the painted treetrunk of the Leonardo Adoration which had opened the film) and then a final shot of the bare branches against a glittering expanse of water over which appears Tarkovsky’s dedication of the film to his own son.

In his own comments about the film, Tarkovsky consistently characterized the film as a spiritual parable exemplifying the particularly Christian conception of self-sacrifice in the interests of community and in the name of a higher ideal Alexander, the protagonist of The Sacrifice, maybe a further development of Domenico, the “holy fool”, who in Tarkovsky’s previous film, Nostalghia (1983) -and, significantly, played by the same actor, Erland Josephson- immolates himself by fire while intoning the Christian injunction to repentance and self-abnegation from the top of Rome’s Capitol Hill. Read this way, Alexander’s setting fire to his house at the end of The Sacrifice is merely another, and more symbolic, version of Domenico’s act of self-martyrdom in the service of a Christian ideal.

The burning house of The Sacrifice might represent not only the culmination of Tarkovsky’s final film but of his life and work as a whole. The fire might echo Zoroastrian practice.

Throughout the film, one hears the sound of coins dropping onto the floor. The constant aural presence of the coins reminds us of the tremendous cost Alexander must pay if God is to grant his prayer to redeem the world. Alexander receives God’s acknowledgment of the wager when he experiences a vision in which he observes himself trudging through mud where silver coins lie next to the sleeping (or dead) form of his son. The coin scene here is reminiscent of an episode in Andrei Rublev: Monks are walking through the mud while the church’s treasury is being looted by Mongol invaders. A sacristan is tortured and called a “Tartar-faced Judas” by the peasants, from whom the church has stolen for generations.

Tarkovsky views his art as serving a religious function: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.”

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