Tarkovsky may have known that “The Sacrifice” would be his last film, but it would be trite to say that he was putting himself up on screen as its tragic hero. Certainly the filmmaker would not deny a common bond with that man. Both are confronting the hour of their death.
I think what the filmmaker was revealing about his own personal drama, coping with terminal illness, was that he felt like the wrong side was dying. Their reputations were made off of his. His critics were a cancer, not him. They claimed his work as justification for their own and were forever trying to rebuild his art in their image.
But in Tarkovsky’s universe there surely should be some sort of natural law to spare the poet before the critic. At the same time, I can understand where any dying man might entertain the hope, wish, fantasy, whatever you call it, that a sacrifice of sufficient magnitude should bring about salvation for his loved ones. Here, I believe, is the common coordinate point where Alexander the main character of “The Sacrifice” and Andre, the director’s, predicaments overlap.
“The Sacrifice” it’s about WWIII and the hero is an aging intellectual, not some hunky, wisecracking superstar in a carnival costume. Even more interesting, this one’s a film critic. In the last act, the critic barters his reputation and all his material possessions away, to God, in exchange for the salvation of his loved ones. Then he sneaks off and sleeps with a witch. Next morning, we can’t possibly guess which desperate act did the trick, but something did. One senses it was a bit of both. In any case, in the end, his family is spared and Alexander has to fulfill his part of the bargain.
It appears as if Tarkovsky means to humble his critics, but in the end, a critic, saves the world? Consider how he did it. By giving up his reputation and all that it bought for him. Ironically, the message becomes that a critic’s highest achievement is to censor them self. The filmmaker sends this poor slob out into the world homeless, mute, stripped of reputation, literally escorted out of the picture by the men in white coats. With the great conflagration at the end of his movie, one could conclude Tarkovsky’s dying wish, at least as an artist, was to burn those critical voices out of existence.
The opening title cards of “The Sacrifice” play over a detail in a reproduction of an unfinished painting “Adoration of the Magi,” by Leonardo. Meanwhile, we listen to The “St. Mathew’s Passion” by Bach. As the titles conclude, the squeal of seagulls fades up. Eventually it will become evident that we are in an upstairs room in Alexander’s Swedish seaside sanctuary. For now, the camera cranes up on a lushly depicted tree in the painting, on a wall. The tree towers over the rest of the composition. The action cuts from that image of a tree, to an actual tree by the seashore, where seagull sounds make more sense.
Already, we are being invited to distinguish between a picture of a tree and an actual tree, Painter René Magritte did a similar thing with a pipe and caption in his “The Treachery of Images,” (1935).
After a few more frames, we will be supplied with the story of a tree to add to the equation, in order to thoroughly uproot any preconception that art is interchangeable with the things it presents. Besides a preview of the end of the world, we are being availed of an opportunity to challenge our preconceptions in a way that only cinema can supply.
It’s Alexander’s birthday and with the help of a very young boy whom everyone calls Little Man, an old man planting a barren tree by the sea. The little one is too young to comprehend a story the old one is telling. It’s about an elder monk that plants a barren trunk with his protégé. After much nurturing by his pupil, the monk’s tree eventually blossoms.
Alexander concludes his monk’s tale with a digression on how a method or a system can be applied to change virtually anything. No matter how insignificant an action is, if done consistently with focused intent, it will change the world. He proposes, one could simply rise up out of bed at precisely the same hour every morning, draw a glass of water from the sink, flush it down the toilet and that would tip the scales of change.
Smells positively Zen-like on the surface, but with a peculiar after scent. I’m almost certain it is a veiled insult, mocking censors who prefer their own idly formulated prejudices over an artist’s hard fought insights. Andre strikes back, making one of them admit how absurd their occupation really is. I didn’t fit these frames together until after I’d watched the film three or four times.
Tarkovsky endured the misunderstanding of men like Alexander throughout his career. Still he got up out of bed every morning, turned on his imagination and made one world-changing work of art after the other. Whatever his censors perpetrated against him, in his final film he flushes all their efforts down the drain.