Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Sacrifice

#366 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

If you've never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, you're in for a treat. He only made a handful of films over his 30-year career, yet by his second feature he had created an astonishingly developed and wholly unique cinematic style. His signature approach includes extremely long takes, mystical symbolism, and dream-like narrative structures. He had a photographic patience unrivaled in film history, and his meticulous attention to detail resulted in some of the most exquisite and soul-stirring images I've ever seen in my life. Don't believe me? Watch the YouTube video below for just a small taste of what awaits you.

Of all his films, I consider his last, "The Sacrifice," his greatest achievement. It's an ambiguous and unconventional narrative about the onset of what we can only assume is world war three. We watch an artistic petty-bourgeois clan, isolated at their homestead in a remote part of Sweden, unravel during the course of the film; the father, Alexander, makes a pact with both God and a witch to save his family from the "sickening fear." Or at least that's the more traditional interpretation of the film, though I will offer my own.

His Career
Tarkovsky was born in a small village in the western part of the Soviet Union in 1933. His father left the family when he was only four, and he soon moved with his mother to Moscow at the onset of WWII. After an aborted attempt to study Arabic at the Soviet Union's foreign language institute and a year of prospecting in the Siberian wilderness, he applied to the State Institute of Cinematography. Admitted into the film-directing program in 1955 at the beginning of Kruschev's breif "thaw," he was among the first generation of Soviet filmmakers allowed to experience film, art, and literature from around the world. He got a crash course in Bresson, Kurosawa, Bergman, and even the Japanese avante-garde director Hiroshi Teshigahara; all of these filmmakers had an obvious impact on his own cinematic language.

Over the next 25 years, he struggled in the grossly bureaucratic Soviet state film industry. His films, despite their international acclaim, were often heavily censored inside the Soviet Union and typically given limited distributions. For example, his 3rd feature film "Solaris" - a genre-bending psychological science fiction tome that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival - received almost no advertising inside the Soviet Union and played at only two theaters in the whole country for a limited time. The state assigned Solaris a "category 3" assessment - a Soviet kiss of death for filmmakers. Only Tarkovsky's international reputation stopped the authorities from completely barring him from working in the film industry.

In the early 80's, he eventually managed to convince the state to allow him to make a film in Italy; once he left the country, he vowed to never return. The authorities barred his wife and child from leaving the Soviet Union and joining him until he was terminally ill in 1986. He made two more films after his escape; one in Italy ("Nostalghia"), and "The Sacrifice," filmed in Sweden.

Living and growing up in an open and democratic society like ours, it's hard to fathom exactly why the Soviet state considered his films so politically subversive. In fact, I can't understand why they considered his films political at all. Certainly, the subtle thread of Christian symbolism and metaphysical themes in his films would have upset some of the more dogmatic ideological blow-hards. But the amount of suffering Tarkovsky endured for his deeply personal and introspective cinematic poems just shows how incapable the Soviet bureaucracy was of understanding any sense of reality, much less art.

Cancer ate away at Tarkovsky's lungs while he made "The Sacrifice." Sadly, he may have inadvertently caused not only his own death, but the death of several of his actors and peers. Between 1976 and 1979, he made a genre-less film called "Stalker." (Some critics, unable to resist classification, have referred to it as a science-fiction film). The set locations included both an abandoned hydro power plant and an old chemical processing plant. Within a few years, several of the actors and production crew died of cancer. Tarkovsky, whose death shortly followed theirs, knew of the rumors floating around attributing their deaths to the toxins they were exposed on the set of "Stalker."

The film
"The Sacrifice" capped off his tortured career, and like nearly all of his films, it's a personal journey. For many people, it charts the spiritual trajectory of the father Alexander (played by Bergman's favorite leading man Erland Josephson). Initially an atheist, he eventually pleads to God for his family's salvation. A neighbor even manages to convince Alexander to have sex with one of his maids, whom he says is a witch who can save them all. After the world returns to normal, Alexander follows through on his promise to God by burning down his house, forsaking his possessions, and refusing to ever speak again.

I've presented what appears to be a logical, orderly plot; the film, however, is another story. It's a mix of both narrative and experimental structures and techniques, and as such, is beautifully ambiguous.

This film represents not a spiritual journey, but a skeptical examination of our own purpose. Tarkovsky had plenty of reason to question everything: his artistic repression, his separation from his family, his inadvertent culpability in his own death and the death of his friends. I don't consider this film (nor any of his others) either an embrace or a rejection of religion. Tarkovsky, the man, was spiritual, but his films never take any open stance on any man-made institutions or contemporary phenomena. They orbit a much deeper, metaphysical level. They represent Tarkovsky's unresolved ideas about the world, his questions, contradictions. In a sense, his films are philosophical, not religious.

Alexander doesn't save the world as the typical interpretation suggests; instead, he descends into madness. This would explain his black-out near the beginning of the film, the dream like nature of nearly all of the sequences after his collapse, the surreal final TV broadcast, the maid's surprise at the father's sexual entreaties, her ignorance of the war. It also contextualizes the young son's first words, which also happen to be the last words in the film (he's unable to speak for most of the film because he's recovering from a surgery): "In the beginning was the word... why was that, papa?"

Burning down the house, leaving his family, becoming a mute - this isn't a noble sacrifice. It's his own loss of sanity, his inability to cope. (BTW - check out the documentary "Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky" for the fascinating backstory about how Tarkovsky's crew was forced to rebuild and reburn the house. For the first take, Tarkovsky refused Sven Nykvist's pleas to have two cameras shoot the house burning just in case one jammed. The camera, of course, jammed).

His Legacy
Tarkovsky created an indelible new language for film, or "time-sculpting," as he referred to it. It has found its way into the styles of filmmakers as diverse as Micheal Snow and Stephen Soderbergh - even if his own films haven't found their way into the homes of most cinematic consumers.

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