The Sacrifice

The final film Tarkovsky completed before his death is also among his most lucid. Turning away from the loose impressionism that otherwise characterises his later filmography, The Sacrifice is structured as a tightly-wound poetic parable, albeit one replete with potent ambiguity. 

Like the film itself, the circumstances of its creation are shot through with synchronicity. In 1982, Tarkovsky first imagined The Sacrifice as “the hero's amazing cure from cancer” after he obeys the obscure instructions of a soothsayer. In 1986, he worked on the final edit while undergoing rounds of chemotherapy in hospital. “I don't know what this means,” Tarkovsky wrote of the experience in his book Sculpting in Time, completed that same year. “I only know that it is very frightening.”

In the final version of the film however, the titular sacrifice is in service of collective salvation rather than individual cure. On the eve of his birthday, retired-actor-turned-critic Alexander’s dinner party is disrupted by the news that nuclear war has broken out. As guests calm his panicked wife, Alexander, who has earlier described his relationship with God as “nonexistent”, calmly retreats upstairs where he promises in prayer to abandon all he loves if only the unfolding apocalypse be reversed. 

The next morning, it is as if nothing ever happened. Tarkovsky's film is not only about faith, it also asks it of its audience, offering no assurance as to whether what we have witnessed is divine intervention or delusory nightmare.

The film reaches its hallucinatory climax in a spectacular six-minute extended take in which Alexander’s cherished home collapses in flames as he makes good on his divine bargain. The shot almost spelt catastrophe for the film. Midway through filming the first attempt, the sole camera being used jammed, rendering the footage unusable. By the time anyone noticed, the entire set was already in flames. To finish the film on time, the house had to be rebuilt in a matter of days. When the shot was completed on its second attempt, the cast collapsed in tears.

But before the apocalypse or its uncanny aftermath, the film begins with a modest ritual. Alexander plants a withered tree on the coast while his young son “Little Man” watches and plays. As Alexander wedges the stump into the earth, he tells his son an explanatory fable about a monk who waters a barren tree on the mountainside every day for three years before it suddenly bursts into life. “If every single day, at the exact same stroke of the clock, one were to perform the same single act, like a ritual, unchanging, systematic, every day at the same time, the world would be changed.”

Tarkovsky put it as follows: “Such behaviour precludes, by its very nature, all of those selfish interests that make up a ‘normal’ rationale for action; it refutes the laws of a materialistic worldview. It is often absurd and unpractical. And yet – or indeed for that very reason – the man who acts in that way brings about fundamental changes to people’s lives and to the course of history. The space he lives in becomes a rare, distinctive point of contrast to the empirical concepts of our experience, an area where reality is all the more strongly present.”

Therein lies the secret of The Sacrifice. To ask whether Alexander’s actions are madness or merely misunderstood is to miss the point, for it is exactly through their irrational commitment that they acquire their weight. Rituals – all of which involve a sacrifice, the most basic being time – are pacts with the unknown, re-enchanting the world and alleviating our collective narcissism. Cinema as Tarkovsky conceived it, is of course a similar kind of operation, transforming fleeting experience into something concrete, durable and communal.

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