sacrifice: the swan song by tarkovsky


You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen- the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives. I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, "Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves."

Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the marketplace, a youth standing on a housetop cried, "He is a madman." I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, "Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks."

Thus I became a madman.

- Kahlil Gibran (The Madman)

"Once upon a time, long ago an old monk lived in an orthodox monastery. ." Alexander narrates a story to the "little man". "Once he planted a withered tree on a mountain side. Then he told his pupil, a monk named Kolov, to water the tree each day until it came to life. Every morning he filled a water carrier and went out. He climbed the mountain and watered the withered tree and at night fall he returned to the monastery. He did this for three years and one fine day, when he climbed the mountain, he saw the tree covered in blossom".

Tarkovsky has no parallel even among the masters. Perhaps, he could only be compared with Christ, for the tormented life he lived by purifying his art. A true artist and a visionary, whose life and art was inseparable, his films dealt with the deepest spiritual and philosophical concerns, meaning of human life, civilisation, art and ultimately hope for a better tomorrow.

Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice is a story of hope in the period of hopelessness, a ray of light in the age of darkness, a call for dedication so that the next generation could witness the blossom of a better tomorrow. The film, which unfolds between the first scene of Alexander planting the Japanese tree and the last scene of his son, "the little man" watering it, become symbols of faith.

The world is awaiting an inevitable catastrophe. The intermittent telecast suggests that it would be a nuclear war, where there will be no more victors or vanquished. Alexander turns to God, offers sacrifice of every thing he had acquired and most loved during his lifetime. He offers his family, home and even his son, "the little man". He also pledges to remain mute if God saved the world and brought back every thing to normal. The next day the sun rises to a pleasant, peaceful world. Now it is Alexander's turn to keep up his pledge. He sets fire to his house and remains mute from thereon.

Alexander, a stage actor who has given up his successful career is undergoing severe mental torment. Everything in and around him adds up to his torment. During the long opening sequence we come to understand from the Postman, Otto, that Alexander was also a famous journalist, a theatrical and literary critic, a lecturer, a writer and so on. Also, he is seen repenting the meaninglessness of what he believed to be a "higher life" that could be attained by studying philosophy, history, religion and aesthetics. Stripping off all these masks of the "civilised" world, now, he stands in harmony with the nature and engages in his monologue with the "little man". The two characters are shown just as part of the vast green landscape, which shows their perfect harmony with the nature. Later, when the news of approaching disaster comes, the panic-struck faces of the characters are shown in the background of dull grey nature, which suggests that nature too has become sick. Throughout the film, Alexander, Otto and the "little man" is shown strolling on their knees in more than one scene, which becomes the imitation of animal movement or even the most natural movement of man of the pre-civilisation period.

Alexander tells the "little man" that a man who defends himself against his fellow men and the nature, is constantly violating the laws of nature. The civilisation thus is built on force, power, fear, dependence and sin. He is concerned about the lack of spirituality and the lust for material gain by mankind. He also despises the devaluation of words, even his own words, instead of doing something meaningful.

Otto, the postman introduces himself as a sort of collector, a collector of incidents. Incidents that are unexplainable but true. He speaks philosophically about life, death and Nietzsche and claims to be waiting for something "real" to happen. He arrives somewhat like a messenger from God to Alexander and advises him the only way to save the world. He advises him to sleep with Maria, whom he terms as a witch, but in its best sense. Alexander finds this idea absurd at first, but later decides to go to Maria.

The incidents Otto sees, the way he thinks, all seems illogical to the "civilised" modern man. His "collections", the numerous incidents he had collected from around the world evokes only a comic response from the doctor, who would definitely be an advocate of scientific and rational thinking. But when this same science, the same rational thinking leads man from wars to greater wars, the most rational facts of modernity itself turn out to be meaningless and the most irrational and the absurd would turn into a ray of hope for humanity.

Adelaide, Alexander's wife is portrayed as the symbol of the highly possessive and materialistic mankind. She blames Alexander for giving up the stage, its success and fame. She loved his fame more than him. Her lust to survive makes her react cynically, when she hears the news of the imminent catastrophe.

Maria, the maidservant appears as the exact opposite of Adelaide. Otto terms her as "a witch, of course in the better sense". A witch in a good sense could be nothing other than an angel, the personification of all the goods, the divine, the nearest one to God. When Adelaide's love for Alexander is conditional, towards his fame and success, Maria loves him unconditionally. She consoles him in his extreme torment.

As per Otto's advice Alexander seeks Maria's help. This union of Alexander and Maria could be the re-union of mankind and his long lost goodness, during his journey towards modernity. For the world to be saved from an approaching disaster, the only way out is nothing but to recharge man with his goodness, his innocence.

The world is saved. The cost for it : the ultimate sacrifice by Alexander. He gives away all that, he considered as his own. He sets ablaze his house and goes into silence. He strips off all his belongings, his house, his family and ultimately his voice to attain the absolute nakedness, the complete harmony with nature.

In the course of time, man changed his direction in the opposite way that of the nature. He called this the progress, the civilisation. To preserve this unnaturally attained condition, he had to use force and he sinned. This most aggressive creature on the earth, totally ignored the laws of nature. The sole reason for him to survive became survival itself. In this mad rush for survival he intruded into the space meant for his fellow creatures. He organised his way of life through hierarchal institutions, the family being the smallest unit of it. Over this foundation he built societies, nations and empires. These empires, filled with spiritual hollowness, fought themselves and reached a flash point where the very existence of nature and thus his own survival came under threat.

In this huge drama of nature, with millions of living creatures and millions of those extinct creatures on the stage, man the youngest actor, should humbly accept the fact that he is just an element of this spectacle of nature and has no right to make his fellow creatures, his slaves. Continuance of this arrogant and aggressive rush to master all the resources of earth equally meant for him and all his fellow creatures, would definitely lead to a disaster, something with no second chance to be corrected. The only way out of this Indispensable disaster, is a retreat. The denial of all the material gains attained unnaturally and forcefully.

Early in the film, Alexander tells the "little man" how he longed for his beautiful house when he saw it for the first time. By setting fire to this house itself, he denies the very basic possession he had, which cordoned him and his family off from the nature. Finally by going into silence, he denies his last weapon, his voice, thus turning into one among millions of creatures on the earth.

Alexander's sacrifice is his gift to the future generations. As Otto points out, every gift involves sacrifice, if not what kind of gift would that be? The next generation, represented by the "little man", dumb during the entire course of the film, is shown watering the Japanese tree and waiting under the tree for it to blossom in the final sequence. The only sound we hear from the "little man" comes in the final scene as a doubt about the Biblical statement "In the beginning was the Word", which his father quotes in the beginning of the film. The "little man" who remained a mute listener to his father's words in the beginning, is unaware of all the unpleasant events that developed around him. When we see him in the final sequence, watering the tree and remembering his father's words, he emerges as the symbol of hope and a better tomorrow.

*   *   *   *

Years before, when Alexander's mother was still alive, she lived in her cottage in the countryside, amidst a small garden. The garden was dreadfully overgrown. His mother, often sat by the window on a special chair to enjoy the view.

Once, Alexander decided to clear up everything in the garden. He mowed the grass, burnt the weeds, and pruned the trees. He wanted to remake the garden to his own taste, with his own hands just to please his mother. When everything was done, he took bath, put on fresh clothes and sat by the window on his mother's chair to see the newly made up garden, ready to enjoy the view. But, what he saw was disgusting, the view of the ugly and unnatural garden, which showed all the evidence of violence. This made him cry.

This small incident in Alexander's life, which he narrates to Maria, may be the essence of The Sacrifice.

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