A profound, not quite impenetrable, work of art

I am going to go out on a limb and recommend to viewers who like a challenge Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice (1986).

It is perhaps the most formally demanding work on the Vatican film list, and appropriately appears under the heading “Art” (Tarkovsky’s other, better-known film on the list, Andrei Rublev, is situated under “Religion”).

In it the medium of cinema gets utilized as a vehicle not so much for drama or documentary realism as abstract symbolism and searching philosophical dialogue.

To put it frankly, it is slow. Very slow.

But for the patient, sensitive, and sympathetic viewer, The Sacrifice may well deliver a profound (albeit oblique, stripped bare, and highly metaphorical) portrayal of that all-consuming self-gift which Our Lord describes in superlative terms, “No greater love hath any man than this…”

It opens with an aria from Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and an accompanying meditative survey of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Adoration of the Magi.

Then it cuts to the films central character, Alexander, a once famous actor turned theater critic and university lecturer in aesthetics. He is also a practical atheist (he does formally disavow belief in God but mentions he does not pray), but reveals at once a searching spiritual sensibility and penchant for preaching as he recounts a parable to his mute son, Little Man.

There once was an old Orthodox monk, he relates, who planted a barren tree on a mountainside and asked a younger monk to water it every day until it came to life. So each day for three years the younger monk did so, until finally he climbed the mountain again only to find the tree in full bloom.

This is not his only extended oration, but in between monologues we are introduced to the members of Alexander’s household – his wife and daughter, a pair of maids, the mailman, and a doctor (apparently his wife’s lover) – as well as to the claustrophobic atmosphere which has been described as the real protagonist of the film.

When fighter jets race over the house and a flickering television announces an imminent nuclear missile strike, the characters each respond to the descending mood of existential dread. Alexander, for example, quietly reflects that his whole life has been waiting for this moment, whereas his wife dissolves into hysterics only to be quieted, in a troubling passage, after the doctor injects her with a tranquilizer against her will.

The party languishes in a taut, nauseous atmosphere as in fear of the impending Final Judgement, or its secular analogue, death perceived as an absolute end. (Note the film’s Cold War context, a period when many persons lived in very real fear of “the ultimate war,” as Alexander goes on to describe it, from which “there will be no victors and no vanquished.”)

For these characters, the almost palpable sense that the end could come at any moment builds towards a half-suppressed kind of frenzy and a crisis point of urgent, decisive choice.

Alexander retires, and, alone in a sparsely furnished room, the practical atheist sinks to his knees and prays the Lord’s prayer. Begging God to restore things as they were before, he offers in return everything he has – “I’ll destroy my home … I’ll be mute, and never speak another word to anyone. … Just let me be rid of this deadly sickening, animal fear!” Then he crawls onto a couch and sleeps.

At this point things get bizarre.

Possibly in a dream – critics debate which parts, if any, throughout the remainder of the film take place outside the confines of Alexander’s mind – Otto the mailman advises Alexander that should he sleep with the maid, Maria, all their problems will resolve.

(Spoilers follow)

He does just this, and there follow several abstract shots, for instance, of the lovers tangled on a levitating bed and a cutaway to a crowd running chaotically through trash strewn streets. Then Alexander wakes up back on the couch on which he had fallen asleep, suggests everyone else in the family go out for a walk while he himself stays behind, and burns their house to the ground.

It is an extraordinary climactic sequence. Filmed in the days before computer generated imagery, Tarkovsky and his crew literally burned down the set.

The Sacrifice may be a strange and in many ways forbidding film, but it also renders in concrete, publicly accessible terms certain hints and insights into qualities that characterize the spiritual dimension of many persons’ private, interior lives: a desolate landscape weighted by the fear of a looming death and washed almost colorless by forlorn desire; an almost madly hopeful anticipation of restorative love at once physical and other-worldly; an overriding desire to summarize the significance of one’s existence through a single, consummate gift of self.

Although highly individual in its abstract symbolism, it is also a work of art so deeply personal that it edges upon universality to the extent it touches upon an impulse fundamental to our nature as persons.

Made in the image of a God who, Christian tradition tells us, in loving his creatures, holds back nothing but gives himself without reserve, so we, too, beneath all our short-sighted desires and calculated reservations wish more than anything to give all that we are.

In this particular work of art, Alexander gives up everything and burns a microcosm of the whole world, we might conclude, in the hope, ultimately, of receiving in the same measure.

It is a grand, and some might say quixotic, gesture: but love not infrequently masquerades as folly.

Indeed, if there is one certain sentiment expressed in The Sacrifice, it may be this: that everything amounts to nothing compared to the chance, however fleeting, to give one’s life, in its entirety, to and for the ones we love.