Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Sacrifice: Tarkovsky's Extended Take

The penultimate scene in Andrei Tarkovsky's final masterpiece, 1986's The Sacrifice, is one of cinema's great extended takes, a six-minute unbroken shot that finds the lead character, Alexander (Erland Josephson), having just made the sacrifice of the title by burning down his house, moving throughout a landscape of muted colors as the bright red of fire looms in the background and his family and two medics attempt to subdue him. Giving himself up at last, Alexander enters the ambulance, completing the sacrifice and bringing the film to a breathtaking conclusion.

The Sacrifice takes place at the country house of Alexander, a retired stage actor, as his family joins him for his birthday. The celebration is interrupted by a rattle that shakes the house and the announcement on the radio that a nuclear war has begun. Alexander prays to God that the crisis be averted and in exchange he agrees to give up his contented life with his family. The sacrifice is consummated as Alexander goes to visit the witch-like servant Maria and has sex with her. Following their intercourse, all mentions of the war have disappeared and the nuclear crisis has never occurred. Fulfilling his promise, Alexander gives up his comfortable existence by burning down his country house and waiting to be taken away by ambulance to a mental institution.

The six minute take begins after Alexander sets fire to the house. He tentatively steps away from the building and the camera frames him against the landscape. The colors of the landscape, the green of the grass and the trees and the gray of the sky, are intentionally muted, in contrast to the bright red of the fire. The grass is also covered with large puddles of water which the characters repeatedly step in. The whole landscape suggests a world in need of regeneration, an idea further suggested by the efforts of Alexander's young son, in the following scene, to water a seemingly dead tree that he had planted with his father. The bright red of the fire, the product of Alexander's sacrifice, represents the possibility of renewed life through its strong affirmative color. Sven Nykvist's camera perfectly captures this contrast in the film's color scheme.

As Alexander backs away, four figures emerge from the background and run towards him. As the figures, Alexander's family, approach him, he begins to explain his action. "I've done something very important," he starts, but then says no more. "No. Silence," he concludes. By refraining from explanation, Alexander makes sure his beneficiaries are unaware of his divine covenant, making the depth of the sacrifice all the greater since he eschews the possibility of personal recognition. With the sound of the house collapsing audible in the background, Alexander's wife embraces him on the ground. Told to "say nothing, ask nothing" she comforts her husband, unaware of the sacrifice he has made. The entire scene is shot in medium distance, intentional in its refusal to grant close-ups to individuals who matter little in the scheme of the universe.

The remainder of the scene consists primarily of camera pans to the left and right to follow the movements of Alexander. He runs to the left, passing the burning building and embraces Maria, the woman who allowed the sacrifice to occur. His family, uncomprehending, pulls him away. Nykvist's camera then pans right to reveal an ambulance. Two attendants come out of the vehicle and attempt to subdue him. In Moby Dick, Melville wrote that "man's insanity is heaven's sense" in reference to Pip, a man who falls overboard, loses his reason and becomes a kind of holy fool. Alexander, like Pip in tune with heaven's sense, must appear outwardly insane, an assessment suggested by the arrival of the ambulance. His refusal to explain his actions coupled with his eventual submission to the ambulance attendants (following a few false starts, as he still clings to his old life) means that Alexander accepts the world's judgment as part of his divine pact. As the ambulance drives off, the house finally collapses, completing Alexander's sacrifice and the scene comes to an end. It only remains for his son to water the dead tree, continuing the faith shown by his father, the only force capable of bringing regeneration to a dead world. Tarkovsky, sick with cancer as he shot the film, leaves the world with an image of hope as he draws his film and his astonishing career to a close.

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