On the Spiritual in Film: Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice
Andrei Tarkovsky was arguably the most spiritual of filmmakers and The Sacrifice is, without a doubt, his most spiritual film.
A number of Tarkovsky quotes attest to the importance of the spiritual in his work (all quotes from Sculpting in Time):
“With man’s help, the Creator comes to know himself.”
“Art must transcend as well as observe; its role is to bring spiritual vision to bear on reality...”
“It is obvious to everyone that man’s material aggrandisement has not been synchronous with spiritual progress.”
“Artistic creation demands of the artist that he ‘perish utterly’.”
“Self-expression ...is ultimately an act of sacrifice.”
“The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
“In the end everything can be reduced to one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love.”
“...in the final analysis, the artistic image is always a miracle.”
And finally, this startling quote that sounds as distinct and puzzling as a Zen koan: “Not knowing is noble, knowing is vulgar.”
Despite his lifelong interest in icons and the Russian Orthodox Church, I suspect, by the tenor of the quotes above and from his films themselves, that Tarkovsky’s interest in the spiritual had little to do with religion. Especially in The Sacrifice, he appears to be addressing or conjuring a spirituality that was alive in human beings long before Christianity, or Islam or Judaism or the Greek and Roman gods, or Buddhism or Hinduism or even animist religions. His idea of the spiritual was something inherent in the individual human being, a longing to go beyond the self, a longing for sacrifice. Perhaps this vision was first celebrated in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira and other Paleolithic sites, in which it was clear that the life of the spirit was not separate from art or from the material world as it exists before our eyes. Of course, this spirit can manifest under the banner of any religion but any particular religion is not its ultimate source for its ultimate source can only be the human heart.
In The Sacrifice, the paterfamilias, Alexander, discovers that he can only save the world, and his child and his family, from nuclear annihilation by sacrificing himself. This sacrifice turns out to be more psychological than physical. He needs to break down completely his idea of who he is; he needs to ‘perish utterly’ in Tarkovsky’s words. The vehicle that delivers this breakdown is a ‘white’ witch, a woman who works in his house. He must have sexual relations with her in order to alter fate. But this act destroys all his masks. In the end, he watches as his house, consumed in flames, comes crashing down.
While Tarkovsky claimed he did not employ symbols in his films (when asked about symbols, he stated that “rain is rain...the Zone is a zone”), the burning house clearly represents the end of Alexander’s world: his relationship with his family, his former life, all that he holds dear, his personality, all that he stands for, even his own mind. In the end, he is driven off in an ambulance, presumably to an asylum. For, in our times, it is considered pure madness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of the world.
Tarkovsky wrote, expressing the ultimate dignity portrayed in The Sacrifice: “...love yourself so much that you respect in yourself the supra-personal, divine principal, which forbids you to pursue your acquisitive, selfish interests and tells you to give yourself, without reasoning or talking about it; to love others. This requires a true sense of your own dignity: an acceptance of the objective value and significance of the ‘I’ at the centre of your life on earth, as it grows in spiritual stature, advancing towards the perfection in which there can be no egocentricity.”