Saturday, November 14, 2009

TARKOVSKY RETROSPECTIVE: The Sacrifice

Sweden. The present. Alexander (Erland Josephson), an actor who retired from the stage after excelling in Shakespeare's 'Richard II' and Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot', gathers his family and friends at his luxurious country home for his birthday celebrations. The occasion is interrupted by a TV newscast announcing that nuclear war is imminent. By his own admission, at the start of the film, not the most religious individual, Alexander finds himself not only praying but offering God a bargain: avert the holocaust and he'll give up everything he has, his family and home, and take a vow of silence.

Next day, everything is as it was before and Alexander has to keep his end of the deal.

These quotes are spattered over the cover of my DVD copy of 'The Sacrifice':

"A work of genius" - The Times

"A classic ... No one in the cinema at present can compete with Tarkovsky on this level" - Derek Malcolm in The Guardian

"Towering ... One of the great films of Western Europe" - Alexander Walker, Evening Standard

Now, far be it from me to question the words of such established film critics as Messrs Malcolm and Walker (and I've been trying to find away of hedging the issue and coming up with 800 non-committal words), but I have to go with my gut instinct. There's a reason I titled this blog after Werner Herzog's words of wisdom. That reason was to get away from arty-farty, up-its-own-arse film writing and simply celebrate the medium. I've not always managed to adhere to that, and I probably shouldn't be writing about 'The Sacrifice' now because the next few paragraphs are going to fly in the face of my mission statement. That's the danger of a retrospective, I guess.

"Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind." I know this is only my opinion and there are people out there who will consider me a godless heathen for saying this (and they'd be right on the first count and pretty damn close on the second), but as far as I'm concerned the only thing 'The Sacrifice' agitates is my patience.

And already I'm undermining myself: "it's boring" is the argot of the school yard and as far removed from a legitimate critical statement as a politician is from integrity. And yet I can't get away from the fact that, in capturing my gut reaction to the film on first viewing and my more considered evaluation second time round, it's the best catch-all description I can come up with.

Nor is it made any easier for me to say having discovered such awe-struck love for Tarkovsky's previous film 'Nostalgia', whose final scene left me gaping slack-jawed at the screen for a good quarter of an hour after the film ended. Following 'Nostalgia', I really wanted 'The Sacrifice' to be a profound and inspirational encapsulation of Tarkovsky's entire moral and spiritual philosophy as a filmmaker. What I resolutely didn't want it to be was dull, turgid, interminable and a test of the patience.

On paper, it sounds like it has all the elements: a celebration interrupted by the certainty of death; the agonising hours which follow; a man of little or no religious belief arriving at what must be a life-changing decision to get on his knees and pray; a quite literal long dark night of the soul as daylight fades and no-one knows if they will see the dawn; the faint hopes of the new day arriving; the miracle of deliverance; Alexander's awful, wrenching decision to do as he promised. This, no doubt about it, is the stuff of real, sinewy drama. Astoundingly, confusingly, frustratingly, Tarkovsky either doesn't engage with these elements, or completely drops the ball.

Firstly, the concept of imminent death intruding on a celebration sets up an immediate juxtaposition, a dynamic; only Tarkovsky presents us with the least celebratory birthday party ever committed to film. None of the supposed celebrants are happy. They're all coolly aloof and cerebrally cynical. Where's the drama in them facing death if none of them are tangibly alive anyway?

Secondly, there's how they respond to the news. I'm not sure how I'd react to only having hours left to live, but I hope I would demonstrate neither the wailing histrionics or the po-faced stoicism that seems to be the either/or choice for Tarkovsky's characters. Nobody says "Screw it, let's drink the good wine. Alexander, you got any decent cigars, mate?" No-one turns to their nearest and dearest and simply holds them close. Personally, I'm betting the majority of people would rather die with a belly full of good food, head buzzing with the pleasant sense of inebriation. That or in the arms of the person they love.

(Mention deserves to be made of 'The Simpsons' season two episode "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish", which posits that Homer has a single day left to live. He determines to flip Mr Burns off, listen to Lisa play saxophone, have a beer with the boys and be intimate with Marge. To my way of thinking, this emerges as an infinitely more realistic response to imminent death than 'The Sacrifice'.)

Thirdly, Tarkovsky greets the new dawn and the aversion of global annihilation not with the profound spirituality that conjured the unutterably moving final shot of 'Nostalgia' but with a ploddingly awful scene in which Otto the postman visits Alexander all in a fluster and tells him he can save mankind by going to see his servant girl Maria and "lying with her" (and he doesn't mean they tell untruths together, either). For what probably only lasts about five minutes - but seems like 'Satantango' and 'Shoah' on a double-bill - Alexander repeatedly asks "who?" (even though the script has only identified one Maria during the entire film) instead of the burning question: "why?" Why does Alexander need to do the wild thing with a servant girl (hasn't he already struck his bargain with God)? Why does Otto know that this is the singular course of action that no-one but Alexander can possibly undertake? Does Alexander just assume that Otto has become God's messenger (why use burning bushes when He can send messages through the postman)?

As much as I tried to engage with it - on both viewings - 'The Sacrifice' lost me at this point.

Alexander's sacrifice itself, albeit the only point where the film breaks ground from underlit drawing rooms and flat coastland and actually gets visual*, exacerbates the sense of the ludicrous. While the raging image of Alexander's flame-wreathed house is an undeniably powerful one, Tarkovsky relegates it to the background while Alexander runs around dementedly in front of it, stumblingly pursued by his family and by the two orderlies who accompany the ambulance which turns up to cart him off to an asylum. The ambulance, it should be noted, turns up within minutes of the blaze starting (by comparison, the scene ends without even a distant siren announcing the impending arrival of the fire brigade) and without any of Alexander's kith or kin placing a phone call or signing any committal papers.

Suspension of disbelief? Oh, puh-leeze. It'd never happen in Springfield.


*If for no other reason, 'The Sacrifice' fails as the single visually uninteresting film by a director whose talent, elsewhere, for creating striking, startling, challenging images remains largely unchallenged in the medium. What makes it worse is that 'The Sacrifice' was lensed by Bergman's DoP of choice, Sven Nyqvist, a man for whom light and shadow was ordinarily second nature.

4 comments:

The Film Connoisseur said...

I encountered a similarly strange reaction to nuclear anhilation in a film called 'Testament' in which people in a small town USA suddenly become aware that the United States had been attacked with nuclear weapons.

Id recommend you check that one out if you havent! Awesome movie, and powerful, except for the peoples reactions in that one moment where they realized whats happened. I would think people would be running around the streets crazy, demented! Lots of crazy shit would be going on in the streets.

Sad to hear you didnt like this one, a Tarkovsky isnt an easy watch EVER, and if anyone but film buffs watched his films, they say they were all boring.

I notice, once again Takovsky tackling religion. Does god exist or not? Did he answer the main characters request, or was it just coincidence?

I gotta get down to watching the last two films you've reviewed! I want to watch all of Tarkovskys films. Boring or not, they are required viewing for any true film fan.

Neil Fulwood said...

I've not seen 'Testament', but will certainly make a point of tracking down a copy after your recommendation.

I'm kind of annoyed at myself for not liking 'The Sacrifice'. Maybe watching the films in order and being completely overwhelmed by the profundity and spiritual power of 'Nostalgia' is part of the reason I feel a little let down by 'The Sacrifice'. Maybe I need to let some time go by, then reapproach it.

Again, Tarkovsky's approach to religion is slightly ambiguous. It's his most nakedly religious work in that it's about a man making a deal with God, but that curious scene where he's told to sleep with his servant girl is very curious. Unless she's supposed to be a Mary Magdalene figure. The way that scene ends suggests the supernatural, not the spiritual.

I'd be fascinated to hear your take on 'The Sacrifice' when you've seen it.

Once more, thanks for commenting.

S. M. Rana said...

I'm in the middle of my second view of Sacrifice and it was good to see your "gut reactions" which in a way were similar to mine as I finished my first view of the film, with a feeling more of exhaustion than anything else. But something made me immediately ( the following day, actually ) to see it a second time, and as I wade a second time, still mid-stream, I find it a little more intelligible.

The director seems to have been clear it was a testament and he puts everything in ( there is even a bit of no smoking advice ). Kind of guy that he must have been, he is expressing the "agitations of the mind" of which he must have been a victim all through, with that perpetual homelessness or crippling nostalghia.

It is boring. There have been more exciting movies. Tarkovsky is not Billy Wilder. But I guess some movies, like certain books, require work to connect with their core.

Unknown said...

As a fan of Andrei Rublev and Stalker I found your review of The Sacrifice spot on. It is a terrible, terrible load of pretentious twaddle - virtually unwatchable - and I'll pretty much watch anything in an Artificial Eye DVD box. I'm looking forward to reading your other reviews with confidence. Well done.