In this time of pandemic and primeval fear, it is bracing to revisit Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, where one man’s potent prayers reverse the world’s destruction.
We first meet the aging actor Alexander on his birthday. He and his young son, Little Man, are planting a leafless Japanese tree on the shore of the remote Scandinavian island. “It looks dead,” Alexander says half-ruefully, then tells his son the tale of an Orthodox monk who planted a dead tree on a mountainside and instructed his apprentice to water it every day. The novice did so dutifully, until one morning he found the mountainside covered with blossoms.
This wondrous flowering is not the first miracle to which the film alludes. The opening credits have already unspooled over an image of the new-born Christ child in Mary’s lap, his tiny right hand raised in blessing and his left touching the kneeling wise man’s vessel of myrrh. These three figures – mother, child and magus – are the tranquil centre of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi, which the artist left unfinished at the underpainting stage of browns and yellows. The work’s sole colour is the dark green of the leaves of the tree beneath which Mary and her baby sit.
Alexander has a reproduction of the painting on the wall above the daybed in his study. Its powerfully executed figures, albeit seen through a glass darkly, reappear throughout the film, sometimes superimposed upon the action. Otto, the local postman and former history teacher, confesses he finds the picture sinister. “I’ve always been terrified of Leonardo,” he tells Alexander.
In fact, da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi overturns the hallowed serenity we associate with the event. The coming of the three Oriental kings has attracted a vast throng of onlookers whose faces are contorted by anguish and confusion. They crowd each other. They stare in opposite directions. There seems to be a frantic energy is on the loose, a frenzy the horses in the background absorb, pawing wildly at the air.
The Madonna, the Christ child and the magus make up the still point in this churning world. All around them is a reality as sinister as the one the postman intuits. Otto is a collector of people’s paranormal experiences. He perceives what others do not. In an insightful prediction, he tells Alexander: “You’re so gloomy. You’re grieving, waiting for something.”
And to Little Man, Otto says: “But you are mute, mute as a fish,” a simile that reveals the import of the bandage the child has around his throat. We come to understand the boy has recently undergone surgery, whose cause is never explained. His doctor, Viktor, who arrives for Alexander’s birthday celebration, assures Little Man the incision is healing well.
With Viktor’s coming, the household’s secrets begin to be exposed. Alexander’s wife Adelina is so clinging and effusively affectionate with him it is evident the two have had an affair. Yet she seems unaware of the palpable erotic tension between Viktor and Marta, Alexander and Adelina’s adult daughter. A former actress given to histrionic gestures, Adelina is almost entirely self-obsessed, pacing while loudly bemoaning the fact Alexander has chosen to leave the stage and their glamorous life in the city. She is callously demanding of their maid Maria, a woman of striking beauty, with a childlike open face. Maria hides her hair under a black headscarf. Her long dress resembles a nun’s habit. Otto the postman pays humble court to her, smoothing his thinning hair. He perceives her purity to which the others are oblivious. Maria simply stares through him, and after her work is done, leaves her employers’ house, where everything is about to change.
The apocalypse announces itself through the trembling of crystal goblets on a tray, a disturbance that might at first be a playful poltergeist causing minor havoc. Then a terrible roaring erupts above the house, a ripping open of the skies. A tall jar brimful of milk bursts out of the china cabinet, spilling its contents in a thick white stream. On the shortwave, an affectless government spokesperson urges citizens to stay calm and remain where they are. His tone makes clear the roaring has ushered in the End of Time. After the transmission goes dead, Adelina’s hysterical cries pierce the briefest cleft of silence. Her naked terror takes the shape of a prolonged corkscrewing wail, perilously infectious, that tests our endurance as viewers.
Only the sedative Viktor administers in a hypodermic syringe can quieten her. We are grateful for the respite of silence and for the camera’s lingering on the peacefully sleeping child, sealed away from mortal panic and despair between immaculate lace-edged sheets. Little Man’s metal bed frame, with its spare grid at head and foot, takes on the gleam of a Platonic form, unsullied by sin and worldliness. The gauzy white curtain at his open window bells in and out with the soft wind, a visible breath of spirit blessing the child.
Alone in his study, Alexander falls to his knees in abject prayer, watched over by The Adoration of the Magi. He implores God to deliver them from this terrible time, and his children, wife and friends from looming death. If only God will make everything once again as it was early that morning, Alexander promises to relinquish all that he loves. He will even destroy his house and give up Little Man.
The force-field of his impassioned prayer summons Otto who tells him there is one last chance to save the world. Alexander must go to see the maid Maria and make love with her. She is a witch in the best sense, Otto insists. Alexander is at first reluctant to follow this apparently absurd and adulterous course. But he soon yields, intuiting he is about to enter a ritual that has the power to redeem the world and all its species. He takes a last look at Little Man in his innocent slumber, and goes out an upper window and down a wooden ladder.
His descent is haunted by monochrome visions of the earth deliquescing beneath his feet, and of the frantic inhabitants of a devastated city colliding with one another in a roiling panic. As he sets off on the bicycle Otto has left for him, we see superimposed over the trees the Madonna and child at the centre of da Vinci’s unfinished work. Alexander’s bike veers wildly on the winding road, and he falls, injuring his leg and hand.
Because Maria has no radio, she has no idea a third world war is underway. Alexander holds the news of coming destruction in abeyance, first playing a Bach prelude on Maria’s organ; then relating a story of how his mother used to sit in the same chair by the window each day, looking out with pleasure at her overgrown garden. When she became ill, and could not leave her bed, he decided to tidy it up, working two solid weeks with shears and scythe. Once he had finished, he bathed and put on fresh clothes, and sat down in his mother’s special chair to savour what he had made for her. What he saw disgusted him. He had destroyed the natural beauty of the garden, leaving only evidence of violence − a cutting parable on an earth ruined by human weaponry.
“Can you love me?” he asks Maria. “Love me, I beg you. Save us.” She refuses, telling him with her habitual gentleness, to go home. In desperation, Alexander puts a gun to his temple as the bombers bearing the nuclear weapons roar over her roof.
Maria succumbs to his pleading, perhaps out of pity. “I know she is wicked,” she says of Adelina. “Do not be afraid, poor man.” The scene of their lovemaking is a leap into the impossible, a defiance of gravity, as their bodies levitate and rotate – a living fulcrum that will transform the fate of every creature on earth.
When Alexander wakes in the morning on his daybed beneath da Vinci’s Adoration, his first clue to the changed world is that the electricity is working again. He puts on the shortwave which is broadcasting music and not the fatal warnings of the day previous. His prayers have been answered and now he must keep his promise to God. He puts on his black silk Japanese kimono embossed with the yin/yang symbol.
His wife and children and Viktor are all out, gone for a walk on a faultless morning. Alexander is therefore free to assemble a tottering tower of bamboo chairs inside the house, which he then sets alight. The fire swiftly takes hold, his exquisite retreat ablaze from every window. Outside he runs back and forth, lopsidedly, because he is limping still from his fall from his bicycle. He resembles deranged King Lear on the heath, meandering and raging at the storm. Except that Alexander is silent, even when Adelina and Viktor and Marta come running, aghast to see the conflagration and his inane circling.
An old-fashioned ambulance van arrives to take him away, just as Maria comes running. He kneels at her feet. “Let him be,” she cries. Alexander runs and the ambulance attendants give chase. He seems at this point infantile, forlorn and lacking all dignity. Yet he has the sovereign assurance of a commitment kept: a yielding up of self that has enabled the world to draw back from the brink. The last thing we see Alexander do is scramble out of the back of the ambulance to embrace Otto, the inspired instigator of his ritual with Maria.
The film’s final scene belongs to Little Man. The ambulance passes the boy as he is making his unsteady way, carrying two pails. He waters the tree he and his father planted the day before and lies down beneath it. Little Man then speaks for the first time, his question addressed to the absent Alexander: “In the beginning is the Word. Why is that, Papa?”
The boy’s question goes to the crux of the Christian faith – the mystery of the Word made flesh, crucified to redeem humankind. In a last lingering take, the camera leaves the prone child and moves up to dwell on the tangle of bare twigs stark against the chill-blue Scandinavian sky. They resemble Christ’s crown of thorns, yet simultaneously, the Zen brushstrokes of naked branches quivering on the edge of blossom.
We observe this indwelling paradox to the accompaniment of Bach’s “Erbame dich, Mein Gott” from the St Matthew Passion. “Have Mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears.” It is Alexander’s prayer, answered through the child beneath the tree and the thriving world that lies all about him, reclaimed from annihilation by his father’s sacrifice.