Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Sacrifice--the artist who wanted to be a saint

*Andrei Tarkovsky*1986*144m*Swedish*Offret*

"In this respect, the Soviet Union is already beyond redemption; and even in Western Europe people seem to take a delight in surrendering their own personalities in the belief that something will be gained by creating a so-called `new society.' In the Soviet Union I had already gone my own way, but you can imagine my astonishment when I realised that the same thing was happening here, all the more so that it was happening in an atmosphere of material well-being. That's why the film rather goes against the grain of all the latest intellectual tendencies in the West."...from the Tarkovsky link below

This world is like a burning house....Buddha

The director's last movie, in the course of which he was diagnosed for cancer. He passed away soon after. Although it is not clear to what extent the actual movie is influenced by issues of health ( the cancer was diagnosed at the editing stage of the film ), it has the tone of a testament. Issues like commercial performance, audience reaction, or even intelligibility, were not his concern in this film. He expresses himself with abandonment, if not self-indulgence. He puts everything here( even a homily about the hazards of smoking ) .

Tarkovsky is quite verbally expressive of his work in his writings and interviews and these give a necessary point of take-off  for making sense of his work. Sacrifice is an unusually voluble film and for a major part a philosophical soliloquy.

His concerns consistently in his series of seven feature films seem to have been existential, spiritual and religious. At the time of making of the present movie, he was at a crest of professional success and adulation ( even veneration ) as a film-maker of world stature. These are well known to provide less than total satisfaction. His complaint seems to have been not only with the way society is organised, or the way human thinking has evolved, as with the nature of life itself. His films are filled with yearning, as for a music distantly heard, and anxieties about death and human destiny seem to be at the core. Perhaps we need to remember that he has most of the right questions but, like the rest of us, no answers. Let us not get too worked up seeking interpretations. He is an artist and poet and we should enjoy the films for the magic of cinema which they undoubtedly possess.

The film is made in Sweden, in Swedish, under the aegis of Bergman. Alexander, a wealthy and retired actor, lives with his family on an island. The film starts with a birthday party and an exchange of gifts ( providing ample occasion for discourse ). World War Three breaks out and destruction is imminent. The hero ( an atheist to start with ) breaks into prayer, pledging to sacrifice himself ( in an unspecified manner ) if the calamity is averted. The village postman, who happens to be a mystic, advises him in a comical sequence that there is a way out of the impending holocaust ( which is depicted in two short interspersed sequences ), namely that he should immediately lie with the maid servant, who he says is a witch. Seeing no alternative to this strange prescription, Alexander proceeds to follow it with alacrity, in the course of which we see the couple levitating, perhaps to vindicate the procedure. Sure enough, no more war. Now for his side of the bargain, the promised sacrifice. Simple. Alex decides to go insane--he sets their house on fire and we see him being carried away in an ambulance. Curtain.

The film is certainly hard work ( and long ) and has to be seen a second time, which I did. Even second time around, when the drift was more or less clear, what seemed most lacking was coherence and momentum. It falls short of being a spellbinder, unless you have all the time and concentration to immerse yourself in the sheer cinematographic excellence. Tarkovsky is a film-maker for less hurried and more leisured times. On the plus side is the characteristic eeriness of a Tarkovsky flick , with glassware and crockery beginning to rattle out of nowhere. The impending calamity is suggested by winds sweeping over the grass, feet walking through slush and withered shrubs, and the wail of Japanese flute. The landscape is vast, treeless and deserted with the sea at the back. The interiors are voluminous, providing ample room for the frolic of light and shade. The craftsmanship is all there.

The film is a visual treat, and one can meditate on the cinematography itself, other things besides. The music of Bach which opens and concludes the film is very like van Triers Antichrist. Antichrist, incidentaly, is dedicated to Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky on the Sacrifice
Roger Ebert's review


vivek said...

Good to see another Tarkovsky review. Haven't seen the film though.

S. M. Rana said...

Nice to see you again!

Jack L said...

Really excellent review,
I saw this one recently as I'm planning to get through all of Tarkovskys' films, as of now I've only got The Mirror and Ivan's Childhood left to see.

This one impressed me very much, I think it might be my favourite of his work along with Stalker.

S. M. Rana said...

You are fortunate to be able to watch films like this at a young age.