Friday, October 26, 2012

The Sacrifice

Offret; drama, Sweden/ UK/ France, 1986; D: Andrei Tarkovsky, S: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Allan Edwall

Alexander, a retired actor and art expert, lives with his family in a secluded house in the countryside. He plants a tree with a little boy. His family and friends congratulate him for his birthday. However, the idyll is disrupted by a TV broadcast about World War III and the information that the whole Europe might be annihilated. Alexander's wife Adelaide is so frightened that she must be sedated. In an act of despair, Alexander prays to God and promises to burn his house and kill his family if world peace is restored. After a dream, postman Otto tells him to go to Maria's house, who is a witch. There, Alexander sleeps with her. The next morning, his wish is fulfilled - his family does not even remember that there was a conflict. In order to keep his promise, Alexander sets his house on fire. He is sent to an asylum.

Andrei Tarkovsky's 8th and last film is also his rarest one and the most difficult to obtain, and in it he gave a worthy cinematic farewell after some of his previous abstract achievements started to show a tendency of occasional boredom prevailing over artistic poetry. The movie starts with a close up of Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished painting The Adoration of the Magi - the camera slowly rises to the upper top of the painting, revealing a drawn tree, which then dissolves to a scene of hero Alexander planting a dead tree on the beach, hoping it will survive and blossom nonetheless, mirroring the story's main theme of a need for (spiritual) rebirth from a dead (material) world. The first live action take, the one of Alexander, the child and postman Otto walking on the beach, is extremely long, running for over 10 minutes, but Tarkovsky managed to make it seem elegant and quality slow thanks to clever dialogues, ranging from the observation about the dwarf in Zarathustra up to common themes in life ("I have a feeling as if my whole life is just one huge prelude to something big - the real life."; "How can the human kind think that it can coin a universal truth, a truth that will apply to the whole Universe?").

Tarkovsky does indeed once again fall in the trap of christian ideology and some of the monologues are monotone, yet they work because an inspired one manages to polish it out ("I got tired of acting someone else, of feeling someone else's emotions. And I was uncomfortable of being honest.", says Alexander, an ex-actor). The main tangle is brilliant and helps strengthen the movie - the hero promises to kill his family and burn his house as a sacrifice if God will prevent an unidentified war that might lead to the end of the world (mirroring Tarkovsky's own gloomy feelings since he was dying from cancer in those years). And after he wakes up, and finds that the world is all right again - symbolized in a pleasant shift from a dark-grey to uplifting-illuminated cinematography - he is faced with a dilemma: will he keep his promise? Will he truly kill his family? Tarkovsky unfortunately avoids to articulate Alexander's drama, but he was always in favor of dreamy mood, de-dramatization. The director breaks the limits between dreams and reality, signalling a gap between the material and spiritual, adding poetic scenes (the boy, who does not speak throughout the story because of an operation on his throat, says the last line: "In the beginning, there was the word...", which is the first Bible verse of the first chapter in the Book of Genesis) whereas the critics particularly praised the virtuoso long take of the house burning, which is why despite some overlong moments, "Sacrifice" succeeds. It won a BAFTA for best foreign language film.


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