Friday, July 06, 2007

They Should Not Perish

I know I'll find it difficult to avoid philosophy or theology, let alone moist-eyed pathos, while writing about Offret/The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky's final film--or any of his movies, for that matter. He is perhaps best known for Solaris (1972), if only because of the 2001 comparisons--both are mystically obtuse SF movies, all but entropic in their daunting leisure--or Andrei Rublev (1969), which also unfolds with custodial deliberation, as though Tarkovsky were displaying one of the title character's painted icons, and feared to scrape off the smallest flake of the holy image.The Sacrifice, though, is even more fragile, an overtly spiritual, even supernatural parable of First Questions--as Alexander's (Erland Josephson) grandson, "Little Man," remarks at the film's end, lying alone under the dead tree he and his grandfather had planted, then watered frequently in a ritual (Japanese, according to Alexander) to encourage spontaneous rebirth in the dead limbs, "In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?"--and End Times--the country calm of Alexander's home, on his birthday, is shrieked into fighter-jet hysteria as World War III erupts, somewhere in the distance. Filmed in Sweden, with Sven Nykvist behind the camera, starring one of Ingmar Bergman's frequent players, and set in a beautiful, pale, Dali-tree-spotted rolling plain and shoreline, The Sacrifice accepts its station in (cinematic) life and holds out to the viewer light-and-shifting-shadow tableaux and one-shot monologues that drew me in and claimed ownership, in an effort both anguished and transporting, filled with abysmal thoughts (in the Nietzschean sense) and the labors involved in fulfilling a pledge.

We once took a bike ride along the Hennepin Canal in northern Illinois. I found myself alone, the water on my left, a tree-line on my right, with corn fields coming and going beyond. As I moved along, the hiss and rustle of the light leaf-cover on the trail and the flicker-dapple of the tree-shadows on my face, the moment was the same as when I was twelve or so, the light and the sound, the movement and air. I was sentimental in my sadness over the time gone, and then almost despairing, then almost giddy as I jounced along. A simple moment, but for five minutes I felt a kind of levitation, and everything was filled with Grace and I was not alone.

Told you, right from the start.*

The Sacrifice comes close to that brief spell along the Hennepin, but it adds an overt magic realism that permits a copy of Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi, lurking behind a deeply reflective pane of glass, to become at once a promise and a threat; and that allows Otto the mailman (Allan Edwall) to serve as a guide through not only the ethics of sacrifice but the mysticism, even witchcraft, of mercy. Otto gives Alexander a map of Europe from the 1600s; when he informs the household that it is not a copy but an original, he is told he shouldn't, that it is too large a sacrifice. "Of course it's a sacrifice," he agrees. "It wouldn't be a gift if it weren't a sacrifice." Well, this may not seem like much, but it's the foundation for the film, as Alexander, who has been mourning the lack of spirituality in the world--but who, when Otto asks him what his relationship with God is like, answers, "Practically non-existent"--falls to his knees when the world threatens annihilation, and chokes out a garbled Lord's Prayer, promising God he will surrender everything--his home, his comfort, his voice (he is a writer), and all contact with his family, especially his Best Beloved, Little Man--if all is set aright. And Otto presents a way to seal the pact: Alexander must sleep with the servant Maria, a witch, according to Otto. The resulting scene, with Alexander washing his hands and Maria feigning ignorance until she accepts him in paranormal, gravity-defying comfort, combines the film's threads of Western and Asian spirituality with a tender, "pagan" physicality.

I will let you work your way through to the end yourself; suffice it to say, though, that when Alexander describes his relationship to God, Otto considers the answer and comments, "Sometimes that may be best." In any case, despite its insistent quietude interspersed with roars and tears, The Sacrifice--with its own significant bike rides--moves--all right, even levitates--along its trail with achingly familiar beauty and sorrow, its losses both touching and necessary, its gains as filled with sorrow as joy. I do not want to reduce this movie to empty dualities, but I hesitate to take you exactly where it heads--if only because you may find yourself somewhere else, maybe even nowhere like the Hennepin, as the film tallies up the cost of the gift even as it shows us the bright faces of those to whom it's presented.

*And sorry for the cut-rate W.B. Yeats impression; the original sentiment, from "Vacillation," goes like so:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

I've been stealing from him--and often this particular poem--for thirty years--and waiting for my own fiftieth to come and go, to see if Yeats was on the square with this. I think he was.

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