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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Waiting for Something Else (on Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice)







Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay and director) Offret (The Sacrifice) / 1986 / The screening I saw was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on February 5, 2010

Compared with the epic works such as Andrei Rublev and even Stalker, Tarkovsky's last film seems narratively simpler. His roving and constantly shifting images become, in the hands of cinematographer Sven Nykvist (also Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer), a series of longer and more focused scenes; in a film of 149 minutes there are, reportedly, only 115 shots.

Also because of its Bergmanian and, particularly, Chekovian influences, the narrative shifts from Tarkovsky's emblematic method of story-telling in his previous films to a more traditionally Western story-line—although Tarkovsky often purposely thwarts the more normative dramatic results.

Isolated on Bergman's island of Gotland, the family at the center of this film live, as does the family in Chekov's The Seagull, in what might be described as a summer house, this located by the sea instead of a lake.

Their home, a place that seemed to call out to both Alexander (played by Bergman actor Erland Josephson) and his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) upon their first encountering it, is something they both still love and yet is a container for all their hurts and pains. Dressed almost as turn-of-the-century women right out of Chekov, both Alexander's wife and his daughter (Valérie Mairesse) quietly spar with each other. Indeed something seems to be sickening all the inhabitants of this house. The young son, nicknamed "Little Man," has just undergone some sort of throat operation, and is mute throughout most of the film. Alexander, a former actor, and now, a successful aesthetician, journalist, and professor, is undergoing a kind of existentialist crisis, and is unable to find meaning or belief in his life. Alexander's behavior alternates between long philosophical monologues and self-consumed silence. As his friend Otto chides him, like a Beckett figure, he is one of those desperately "waiting for something else."

Otto, a part-time postman, collects strange incidents and falls into temporary faints. The Icelandic maid, Maria, to put it simply, is most strange. Yet, as their doctor friend and visitor, Victor, later reveals, it is Adelaide and her incessant attacks on her husband, and her outspoken dismissal of those around her that most makes this house an unbearable place in which to exist. By film's end, Victor is determined to leave it (and, apparently, the daughter) for Australia.
The day in which the film begins is Alexander's 50th birthday, and all have gathered here to endure a celebratory dinner. At this point, however, Tarkovsky turns the tables, so to speak. What has been a Chekov-like family comedy-drama is suddenly transformed into an international event as the radio and television, in blips of static, report that the world is on the throes of another great War, with the certainty of a nuclear holocaust.

Adelaide lapses into a fit of terror, screaming out for the men "to do something," as Alexander retreats to his room upstairs, pondering the unbearable wait of the next few hours. This, he is suddenly certain, was what he was waiting for, a call to action. Although he has previously described himself as a nonbeliever, he now intensely prays to God, insisting that he will give up everything he loves, his son, his house, his life, if only the holocaust can be averted.

While we hear the roars of jet planes flying overhead, the family, some now sedated by Victor, quietly wait out what is suddenly a real tragedy, reiterating their personal pains and failures. Otto, who has previously left, climbs secretly through a second-story window to ludicrously reveal to Alexander that he must go to the house of the Icelandic maid—who is a witch, but of the right kind— and lay with her through the night in order to save the world.

Suddenly we begin to suspect that Tarkovsky is pulling out the rug from his story once more. Just as we might have imagined that the original comic-tragedy has reverted into an allegory of horror, by now combining pagan acts with Christian prayers, we begin to see another kind of comic potential in this work.

In his essay "Zarathustra's Gift in Tarkovsky's Sacrifice," Gino Moliterno convincingly argues that Tarkovsky is reiterating in his film Nietzsche's Zoroastrian notion of the Eternal Return that Tarkovsky intimates at the beginning of the movie with a reference to Zarathustra's dwarf. Alexander, he argues, who has come to the crossroads of his life (like Tarkovsky, who himself was dying of cancer at the time of the filming), is by film's end willing to say, "Is that life? Well then, once again!"

I argue that Tarkovsky purposely combines both the pagan and the Christian worlds, symbolized by the gentle drama of the turn-of-the-century combined with images of the horrors of 20th century wars. What some critics have complained as a murky mix of paganism and Christianity or seen as a narrative incongruity, is, in fact, a kind of delicious pot au feu in which Tarkovsky's character pluckily mixes religions of the present and the past represented by various dramatic genres in order to transform the present into another kind of reality, pointing up both the past and the potential, different future. The witchcraft of Maria weaves its spell, just as the Christian moral choices of abstinence motivates Alexander's acts.

Waking the next morning, the electricity has returned, and all seems like it was earlier the day before. The other figures quietly share a breakfast table, seeming to have forgotten what they have undergone during the night. Was it all just a dream, a horrible nightmare spawned by Alexander's troubled mind? In some ways, it does not matter. The house is still sick, the patients still in need of a cure, even if the world at large has been salvaged.

Tricking them to take a morning walk, Alexander dances and trots around the house, almost comically snacking on tabletop leftovers as he prepares a fire which, once he has set, quickly creates an inferno.

As family and friends come running back to the burning pyre, an ambulance miraculously arrives to cart Alexander, a man apparently gone mad, off. Such a truth-teller must be put away immediately. Whether or not he has redeemed their lives, has managed to resurrect the lives of his family and friends, he has redeemed his own life; for once he has acted instead of passively waiting for the end.

Tarkovsky's brilliant film closes with a scene in which "Little Man," a future Alexander, lays under a tree which the two of them have planted in the very first scene. The child, in his first and only lines of the film, speaks: "In the beginning was the word...why is that, papa?" If Alexander is determined to spend the rest of his life in silence, to give up all that life has meant, the boy will continue to speak in a dialogue with and for him in the next generation with its new possibilities. The magic, Christian or pagan, has been accomplished.

Los Angeles, April 15, 2010

When I first saw The Sacrifice years earlier, I was immensely moved by it, and had the feeling that when I fell asleep that night that I dreamt the movie all over again, as if it had somehow rewound itself in my head. I did not know at that time that Tarkovsky had had a somewhat similar instance occur during the work's filming. When they first attempted to film the burning house, the camera jammed, and they lost the crucial shot. At great expense and time that Tarkovsky, ill during the shooting, did not have, they rebuilt the house and filmed the scene again with two cameras.
Moliterno points to this ironic situation that might have reiterated one of Tarkovsky's themes: "Is that life? Well then, once again!"

Los Angeles, April 16, 2010

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