Wednesday, November 7, 2007

11/7: The Sacrifice

[This is a contribution to the Film + Faith Blog-a-Thon hosted by Strange Culture.]

Andrei Tarkovsky's final feature, The Sacrifice, completed shortly before his death in 1986, is a fitting end to the career of such an idiosyncratic, deeply spiritual, and yet never dogmatic auteur. It's a strange, unsettling film, flawed but always intriguing. The film is bathed in an aura of poetic spirituality, which Tarkovsky contrasts, in all its absurdity and illogical leaps, against the cruel, coolly rational mechanisms of modern society. Science is present in the film mainly as an agent of evil and nuclear holocaust, a symbol for man's defilement of nature and exploitation of God's creations. In a sense, the film is split roughly into two halves, with the first representing modernity, and the second, with its elliptical montages of dream-like imagery, representing the alternative of spirituality and faith.

Oddly enough, for the first half of the film, the Swedish air (and Swedish cast) seem to have gotten to Tarkovsky: the film strongly resembles a Bergman chamber drama, and not just because Bergman's frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist is helming the camera. These opening sections concern Alexander (Bergman regular Erland Josephson in a phenomenal performance), a literary critic and former actor who's troubled by vague philosophical quandaries while shuffling through his routine existence. He adores his young son, who's mute and seems to follow his father everywhere, but he's alienated from the rest of his family, especially his cold and discontented wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood). The film opens on a lengthy and continuous shot outside Alexander's home, where he's re-planting a dead tree in the middle of the flat, barren landscape. Nykvist's camera hovers far away from Alexander and his son for quite a long time, keeping them isolated on the windswept plain, the camera subtly jiggling from side to side. Alexander recites a story of a monk who planted just such a dead tree on top of a mountain, and ritualistically watered it every day for years until it finally sprouted with life again. Finally, with the entry of Alexander's friend Otto (Allan Edwall, another from the Bergman troupe), the camera begins to move more noticeably, tracking the trio as they move across the grassy landscape, Otto on his bicycle weaving in circles around Alexander and his son.

The openness and solemn beauty of this scene, despite the distance from the characters, is a stark contrast to the constricting interior scenes, in which Alexander's family and friends have gathered for a grim birthday party for the patriarch. At this point, the film becomes a Bergman family chamber drama, even down to the shifting character arrangements in which the film frame is used to create striking compositions simply from the interactions of characters' bodies and movements. This similarity might point to the influence of Nykvist, or else Tarkovsky's conscious choice to employ the aesthetic as a counterpoint to the more characteristic elliptical montage he switches to in the film's second half. Certainly, the quiet, peaceable, intellectual Alexander seems somewhat out of place in this context, especially in comparison to his bitter, histrionic wife. The family's problems are set in sharp relief, finally, when a crackly TV broadcast delivers the news about impending nuclear war. Tarkovsky maintains his cool distance here, objectively presenting the characters' collapse before the enormity of this announcement. Fleetwood's total meltdown is a bit much, and she delivers one of the film's weakest performances in general — a weepy, over-the-top explosion that's more like a parody of Bergman than a tribute.

The rest of the cast quietly contemplates the news and deals with it in a seemingly more composed way. But Alexander wanders off by himself and delivers a heartfelt and remarkable prayer to God, in which he promises to renounce every aspect of his material existence if God will just reverse the impending threat and restore things to order. Tarkovsky films this incredible scene by actually placing the camera at the vantage point of God, looking down on Alexander's pleading, upturned face as he prays. In this subtle way, Tarkovsky retains the objective distance of the film's earlier scenes even during this intense close-up, and yet simultaneously the meaning of this distance is utterly altered. Instead of the authorial distance of an artist observing his characters with a dispassionate eye, the camera's objective gaze becomes the gaze of God himself, looking down on one of his distraught creations. This scene completely opens up the film, pushing the family drama into the background and triggering a dream-like collage of memory, fantasy, and allegorical hallucination as Alexander falls asleep after his prayer.

The film here takes on a dancing, elliptical quality that was entirely lacking from the earlier melodrama — recalling in its structure and elusiveness Tarkovsky's greatest masterpiece, the near-impenetrable Mirror. If the opening scenes often seemed a bit turgid, like warmed-over Bergman, their meaning and purpose becomes clear in contrast to the free associative imagery of the film's second half. Alexander's faith, his blind and pleading faith in the face of annihilation, has released him from the bonds of his material existence, and he wanders now through a dense patchwork of surreal events and images, like a twisted mirror held up to reality. These segments have a lightly absurd quality to them that occasionally even verges on a totally unexpected sense of humor, as in the scene where Otto tries to explain himself to Alexander without actually coming right out and saying what he means. There's also a surprising sensual subtext to these scenes, especially in Alexander's encounter with a religious "witch," ending with the two of them embracing and floating in the air over her bed. For Tarkovsky, clearly, Alexander's sudden burst of religious belief has set him free in many ways — from an unfulfilled life, from his fear of death, even from the physical rules of reality and the scientific laws by which humans explain them.

Finally, though, Alexander wakes up again, and finds that his prayer has been answered, and he recognizes that he now needs to follow through on his own end of the bargain. This is the collision of spirituality with lived reality, which can only result in the absurd, the ridiculous, the insane even. Alexander's actions to fulfill his bargain with God — I won't ruin the stunning ending for those who haven't seen it — can't help but conflict with the world around him. The finale even encompasses a bizarre slapstick comedy routine, so absurd it's sublime: a comedy emphatically underlined by tragedy. Alexander's sacrifice for his religious conviction, ultimately, is his connection to reality and everything he holds dear, but Tarkovsky, perhaps unlike some of the more atheistic audience members (like myself), doesn't judge or question Alexander for this sacrifice. Instead, he sees something admirable, even hopeful, in it. Earlier in the film, he sets up the idea of sacrifice by having Otto say that a gift is meaningless unless it is truly a sacrifice, and this seems to be Tarkovsky's view of man's relationship with God. The film, in spite of its occasional flaws, does such a good job of exploring Alexander's sacrifice and spirituality, that it becomes impossible not to follow along with him to the absurd consequences of his actions. The Sacrifice is one big leap of faith set on celluloid, a bold voyage to the extremes of faith and the very edge of human existence by a director who was himself facing up to his own mortality at the same time.

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