Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Sacrifice

Written and Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1986.

In some way the power of a great work of the cinema becomes part of you. Amadeus introduces you to an unforgettable character, 2001 immerses you in the vastitude of time and space, and Lawrence of Arabia sweeps you up in the sprawl of history. A simple movie like Mr. Hulot's Holiday can etch a tiny beach into your memory and a silly romp like Raiders of the Lost Ark can kindle your inner child. A satire or documentary can change the way you think, and a drama how you feel. I've never known, until The Sacrifice, a movie to change what you see. I don't mean see, though, as a metonymy for think (cogitate) or prehend (grasp) or discern (separate) but I mean literally to observe, to watch and keep. Tarkovsky's final movie, dedicated from the dying director to his son, is not about the world of calculation, but of the perfect, total sacrifice of love, and such love is not predicated on any recognition but the observation (seeing and keeping) that God is love, and the fullest love is the fullest sacrifice.

Yet modern man is closed to this sacrifice, and thus God and love, because he limits himself to the empirical, the perceptible, and the material. In faith, though, hope remains. The opening shot sets the stage of man's disillusion and promise: Alexander walks home from the shore with his son and friend. With his son he has planted a tree, and told his "Little Man" the story of a monk who on faith climbed a summit each day to water a tree which did one day blossom. To his friend Alexander confesses his feeling that he has waited his whole life for a reality which has not arrived. It's a rhapsodic unfurling of the story with Alexander walking along, Little Man loosely in tow playing with his lasso, and Otto his part-time postman friend cycling to and fro around them. When Otto dismounts, the men reflect in some frank philosophical speculation about demiurges, Nietzsche's dwarf, and the eternal return. This unbroken scene, over nine minutes, is also a microcosm of Alexander's life–ambling, interested, pale–and as such the cute prank which Little Man plays on Otto is fraught with portent: while the men talk the boy lassos the bicycle to a nearby tree, and after Otto starts to cycle away the bike halts and Otto goes flying off. A not so subtle suggestion: have we overlooked something in our search for happiness?

Alexander of course loves his Little Man and speaks volumes to the boy, himself mute after a recent surgery, about life and meaning. The father carries the son on his shoulders, walks with him, and holds him with tender arms. In the second scene, pictured on the poster above, Little Man sits on his father's lap and as a breeze blows through their shady grove Alexander tells his son how they came to find the nearby house in which Little Man was born: he saw it and fell in love. No calculation or benefit-analysis, just a sense of rightness. His son wanders off a bit, crawling around the roots of trees as Alexander wanders onto less happy topics, like the technical progress which has brought both comfort and standardization, but not satisfaction or spiritual health. Science, Alexander says, is in the service of evil, since sin that which is unnecessary. This would seem but ennui and speculation were it not for the beautiful sight of father and son under the breezy trees which persuades us that anything else is indeed unnecessary. He goes on and on until at last in disgust he says like Hamlet to Polonius, "Words, words, words." Mere words are no substitute for doing something significant.

In his preoccupation Alexander has lost track of his son, who sneaks up on him. Crashing into his father, the boy bloodies his nose and when Alexander sees what has happened, he collapses, just barely wheezing out, "Dear God what's wrong with me?" After he falls the camera cuts to a dream, black and white, of a destroyed urban square. No people, just gurgling water, and as the shot fades out we see the edge of what looks to be a spatter of blood. Whose?

The camera cuts back to Alexander thumbing through his birthday present, a book of prints depicting Christ. As we take in together with Alexander how the colorful paintings and images of Christ contrast the dream, or the reality, Alexander says, "Fantastic. What refinement." These are such choice words that we wonder, even of Tarkovsky and even in this masterpiece, whether they're wholly deliberate. A fantasia is not simply something which you see, but from Greek's φανταζω is something which appears to you as if presented to your consciousness, less cognitively than directly. Likewise in refined we find per-ficio, that is, finished, perfected.

Alexander goes on to say that the images are childlike yet meaningful and knowing yet virginal. How do these pictures seem to know and yet remain uncorrupted by the world? Alexander concludes that it's all been lost: we can no longer pray. Shortly later, he examines a map from the 14th century, reflecting how wonderful it must have been to have seen Europe like this. To him this old Europe looks like Mars, a lie if it's supposed to be Earth. Alexander longs to see with different eyes, to see the truth, but Otto cautions him with the image of a cockroach running around the plate, who runs that ritual, perhaps in vain, in the faith that "He could," but not seeking something so protean and chimerical as some "truth" which he can understand and master.

Tarkovsky would go on to write in Sculpting in Time (228), that,
Contemporary man is unable to hope for the unexpected, for anomalous events that don't correspond with 'normal' logic; still less is he prepared to allow even the thought of unprogrammed phenomena, let along believe in their supernatural significance. The spiritual emptiness that results should be enough to give him pause for thought."
The only alternative to faith and hope is the tortured pursuit of the truth without the ability to see it. All the while the two men carry the painting through the house, as if... as if what? As if they determine the truth, the choice, the path? As if they think they do?

After the roars of bombers interrupt the birthday celebration we learn that they were the attacks of a nuclear war. Slowly the family members lose their sanity and as they do Alexander sees the inevitable descent. Finishing the Lord's Prayer, Alexander asks for the deliverance not only of his family but also those who do not believe because they have not suffered, and those who have lost hope and the opportunity to surrender to God's will. Kneeling to God on the floor in his home, he promises to renounce and even destroy his earthly attachments for the sake of this petition. He will become silent, so that his son may speak. When Alexander stumbles back to the couch after his prayer, a coin falls from his pocket and rattles noisily along the floor. A symbol of his sacrifice, of its singularity or its smallness? Is it a gesture of banality after the heightened tone of the prayer?

In his subsequent dream, a pile of coins shaped like an arrow points the way to Little Man, but as the camera pans up (the opposite of the downward motion of the previous dream) we glimpse but his feet before he runs off. Then we hear the onrush of the jets whose breeze then blows open a pair of doors, revealing a path still sealed by bricks. The imagery here is vague but fruitfully so. It is vague not for the sake of speculation or nihilism–that is, endless legitimate interpretations–but for the sake of making the film an invitation to the audience to look and wonder where the sacred, where the significant, lies. Perhaps the coins are the sacrifice, Little Man the end, and the blocked door the alternative. Perhaps the coins are Alexander's life and Little Man is a path away from the inevitable blocked door of death. Perhaps coins represent calculation and point toward the door which technology reveals to be blocked anyway.

In cryptic, elliptical words Otto tells Alexander how to save his family: he must lay with the witch, who happens to be Alexander's unusual maid, Maria. We can accept this command as magical realism or we can understand the curious characters of Otto and Maria as possessing the sight which eludes Alexander and modern man. As Tarkovsky writes, "They move in a world of imagination," (Sculpting in Time, 227) not of empiricism, a world to which we see hints in Maria's eyes, deep with sensitivity, and Otto's fainting spells and secret knowledge of spiritual matters.

Trusting in Otto, Alexander sneaks out of the house to find Maria. When he finds her, though, he finds the need for more words, this time a story from his youth. The house in which he lived with his mother had a garden which was overrun with weeds. His mother would sit beside the window and look out into the garden, until she became ill and bedridden. At that time Alexander sought to cultivate the garden to his own taste and with his own hands and then show it to his mother to please her. When he was done, though, he looked upon his work and was disgusted by the ugliness he had wrought. He had done violence to the land and destroyed its natural beauty.

When he lays with Maria they rise above the bed, draped in sheets, liberated from pragmatism by the gift from God that was Maria's love.

When he awakes, the sun is for the first time bright and warming. Colors are rich and vibrant. Alexander picks up the receiver of the telephone, which had been ringing unanswered throughout the movie, and calls his editor. The boss is busy, the secretary says, but they're glad to have Alexander back. Is the boss more than just Alexander's editor?

Finding the world seemingly returned to normal, Alexander makes good on his promise to forsake his worldly belongings and attachments. In another long unbroken shot he burns down his beloved house and seems to go mad, but it is not the madness of frenzy but of elation, of the Holy Fool who has forsaken the world in sacrifice, for love, for God. As the house burns in the background Alexander runs back and forth, eluding the ambulance and paramedics who try to take him away. As he is finally driven off in the ambulance, Maria cycles away as well, pausing to see Little Man faithfully watering the tree as the monk did. The Little Man has inherited the ritual, the faith, and he may save himself and others as his father's sacrifice saved him.

The film ends with its beginning, with Bach's Erbarme dich from the Matthew Passion uniting the cycle of sacrifice and redemption. There is but one sacrifice, gift, and love–the full gift of oneself–and it is the fullness of this gift which transforms our sense of that harmony which is "born only of sacrifice" and which transforms the world around it (Sculpting in Time, 217.)  In so sculpting moments and meaning into this "poetic parable," this film itself becomes the glass through which we see not so darkly, but with a hint of the special sight which sees the beauty of the sacrifice.

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