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In The Sacrifice, a former communist tells of a doomsday wager
BY John Prizer
The Holy Spirit catches fire in unusual places. Under communism, most members of the officially sanctioned Soviet intelligentsia were Marxists, hostile to religion. The late writer-director, Andrei Tarkovsky, started out as a pampered member of that class. What led him to become a Christian is not known, but his career predictably suffered. His 1966 masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, a drama about a medieval icon painter (reviewed in the Register in November), was banned for several years, and he was pushed into exile in 1983.
“Art is born and takes hold whenever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual,” Tarkovsky wrote. He tried to show in his work how and where the numinous, invisible reality of God intersects with the ordinary physical world in which we live. He believed he could perceive the presence of the Divine through art. To him, this interaction of the seen and unseen has the logic of a dream which reveals the spiritual battles being fought around us.
The Sacrifice, winner of the Jury Prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, is about a celebrity TV journalist and professor, Alexander (Erland Josephson), who learns that nuclear war is about to begin. He promises God he will give up everything he cherishes if only the world will be spared. The crisis becomes his call to a spiritual awakening.
The setting is Faro Island off the coast of Sweden, where Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), whose work has influenced Tarkovsky's, owns a home and has shot many of his films. It's the professor-journalist's birthday, and a small party is thrown in his honor. In attendance are family members and selected friends, including the eccentric local postman, Otto (Allan Edwall), who once was a history teacher. But the apple of Alexander's eye is his young son, nicknamed Little Man (Tommy Kjellquist), who isn't able to speak despite a recent operation.
Among the guests, there isn't much small talk. They express themselves in long, philosophical monologues during which they rarely look at each other. The air is thick with alienation and conflict although no one is willing to admit it.
Art is born and takes hold whenever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual.
Alexander isn't a religious man, yet he questions things deeply, speculating about the meaning of existence and inveighing against the materialism of the modern world. Otto is a non-Christian “mystic” who's more directly involved with the spiritual. He reads Nietzsche and collects stories about paranormal phenomena. During the unwrapping of the presents, he prophetically declares, “A gift is always a sacrifice.” And when he inexplicably faints during the party, he says, in premonition of the catastrophe to come, “It's the wing of an evil angel that touched me.”
Tarkovsky evokes the approach of the nuclear holocaust without resorting to mushroom clouds or military confrontations. Instead, Alexander's house begins to shake. The glassware tinkles, and the sound of jets is heard overhead. The guests listen to the prime minister's declaration of war and warning about disaster on television. The prospect of death evokes differing responses among them, but all wish they could relive their lives.
Alexander separates himself from the others, unexpectedly falls to his knees and recites the Lord's Prayer. He confesses to a too strong attachment to material possessions and a belief in ideas that have led him away from God. He vows to give all that up if humanity is saved. He also promises to renounce everything else he values, including his beloved son. The scene has biblical resonance. One is reminded of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac and of God the Father's offering of his only Son to redeem mankind.
Throughout the rest of the film, at key moments, we hear the sound of coins dropping to the floor. Tarkovsky uses this symbolic device to reiterate that Alexander has made a wager with God and the huge cost it will exact if his request is granted.
Only Otto is told about Alexander's holy pact. The postman suggests that the professor-journalist seek out one of his household maids, Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir), who lives near an abandoned church. It's implied she has spiritual powers that may be of help. Alexander takes Otto's advice ands sets off on a quest to assure his prayers are answered.
The Sacrifice is slow-paced. Its narrative rhythms are contemplative. The filmmaker's highly stylized methods suggest that the whole incident may be only a dream. Audiences used to fast-moving Hollywood productions may be dis-oriented, but it's worth the effort.
Tarkovsky believed that art must be more than self-expression. It must help create “a spiritual bond with others.” He wanted us to understand “the true affirmation of self is sacrifice.”
His film is also, among other things, the story of how one individual is saved. It encourages us to be like Alexander and enter into a dialogue with God about the meaning of his creation.
Few movies today challenge us to grapple directly with issues like faith, redemption and salvation. Almost alone among contemporary filmmakers, Tarkovsky and the late Polish director, Krzysztof Kielowski, devoted themselves to these themes.
Both came from communist countries where Christianity was under attack. It's worth noting that two of our most compelling witnesses to spiritual truth emerged from these crucibles of persecution.
John Prizer currently writes from Paris.