‘The Adoration of the Magi’ – Leonardo da Vinci, 1480 – WikiArt
This is the first piece of a new category in the blog called ‘Impressions of Truth’ which aims at exploring art and spirituality through the medium of films, and celebrating various famous masterpieces of world cinema. Art is at the core of the spiritual endeavour and creativity is one of the foremost qualities and expressions found with the discovery of our true nature. The function of art is to give us a taste of the deepest reality hidden behind our human endeavours. And filmmaking has uniquely tailored visual and narrative qualities, perfectly conducive to bringing us closer to the inherent peace, harmony and love within us. So let’s immerse ourselves in the unique intimacy of a cinema room, the play of forms on the screen, and the ancient gift of being told another human story…
As an introduction, I would like to warn that, for the specific purpose of this text, I have chosen to describe the precise contours of the movie’s storyline. This is a film where the narration is not of the utmost importance, but be prepared if you plan to watch the movie and would rather not know so much…
“The aim of art is to prepare a person for death,
to plough and harrow his soul,
rendering it capable of turning to good.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky
The screen and cinema room turned to a pitch black. Only the faint crackling murmur of an old empty sound track could be heard. And then… Then slowly rose the most exquisite music. ‘Erbarme Dich’ of the St Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach. Only hear this piece once in a movie by Andrei Tarkovsky, and its hearing will be forever associated with the great Russian film maker. Tarkovsky once wrote: “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.” The film ‘The Sacrifice’, by the master, is a living testimony of this claim.
As this most divine music unfolds, a darkly lit portion of a painting comes to life. This is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, where you see Jesus as a baby, sitting in Mary’s lap, reaching for the gift that is presented to him by one of the Magi. Then an exquisite feminine voice rises among the violins and sings these poignant verses: ”Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears! See here before you, heart and eyes weep bitterly. Have mercy, my God.”
Tarkovsky’s movies move slowly, with long takes, and unconventional scenario and structure. This can be a challenge for the viewer who is used to expect from a movie the usual suspense, pleasure and excitement. The thrill comes here from a wholly different place. It comes from silence, harmony and beauty. And if the purpose of art is of the deepest kind, Tarkovsky is indeed one of its most faithful representative, and could very well make his these words by Rupert Spira: “The role of the artist is to transmit to humanity the deepest experience of reality. Art is remembrance. It is love. It is like a sword that distinguishes between appearances and reality, or a cradle that reminds us of home.” This indeed is a form of elevation, and the film makes it immediately clear.
Slowly, the camera pans upward in Da Vinci’s masterpiece, along a tree trunk, its branches and foliage, with the sound of sea waves breaking on a distant shore. The first scene of the movie takes us by the seaside, in a Nordic landscape, with the main character trying to raise and plant a withered tree, and asking his young son for help. Alexander is a journalist, critic and lecturer who lives here with his wife, in an elegant house. He is a man concerned with himself and the world, spiritually minded, and prone to depression. Alexander believes in the importance of faith and ritual in this world. He tells his young son the story of an old orthodox monk who once planted a barren tree on a mountainside, and asked a young monk to come and water it every single day. It so happened that after three years, the tree was found covered with blossoms.
Alexander’s young son, whose name is ‘Little Man’, is temporarily mute due to a recent throat surgery. On these premises, arrives Otto the postman, riding his bicycle and bringing a letter for Alexander’s birthday. This is the occasion for a long take of more than nine minutes, where Otto and himself speak about the ups and downs of life, and the strange fact that we always seem to be waiting for something. This is a moment of long, meditative panning or zooming movements, sometimes barely perceptible, a feature of Tarkovsky’s cinema. This is one of these recurring moments when the film takes a sudden turn towards something subtly absurd or ludicrous. We can recognise here this tension in life between the search for beauty, or the most tender meaning, and the desperate slide towards the silliest, meaningless results. There is an unbalance here, something undone, un-achieved.
“How is your relationship to God?” asked Otto, cycling and circling leisurely around Alexander and his little boy. An essential feature in Tarkovsky’s cinema is that there is no firm ground to repose on, that no point is ever being made. You are not being manipulated, and no clear message is given to you. You remain free to wander wherever you want to. Otto warns Alexander that he shouldn’t be waiting for something. He says that all his life was like a long wait in a railway station, sensing that the life he had wasn’t yet the real thing, and waiting for something real and important to dawn at last.
The postman leaves and Alexander wanders with his son amongst the trees, speaking about his concern about the world. “Look here, my boy, we’ve lost our way. Humanity is on the wrong road, a dangerous road.” Tarkovsky’s wonderful camera movements among the trees highlight the beauty of nature. His unique operatic way of filming nature is profoundly moving and makes us feel its mysterious quality and presence. Alexander complains about the state of the world, realising that man has constantly fought other men and nature for his survival. This has led to a culture built on power and violence, and caused this horrific destruction of nature.
The boy is fiddling around. Alexander’s long monologues appear like talks of separation and desperation, while the more fundamental meaning of existence is somewhere else, taking place in a truer reality. This is shown by the presence of nature, and the wind’s hum among the grass. They are like a deeper, more fundamental image of truth, the unchanging background where the dance of restlessness, fear and hope occur. Sometimes, a long, plaintive, mocking feminine voice awakens in the background like a chant, a warning, a call. This is the voice of the impending doom or apocalypse, that appears in sudden patches of black and white sepia tones, while we keep repeating our old worn out habits.
Alexander argues that sin is that which is unnecessary, and if that is so, then our culture has been built on sin, and is suffering from a dreadful disharmony and imbalance. There is a growing gap between our material and spiritual development. Alexander is both the author of this endless windbag and also the one fed up with it. We wear at our heart such contradiction. Always annoyed at ourself, while we keep repeating the same old traps and escape roads, the same desperate hopes that die in the claws of time and fear. For Alexander, the solution lies in stopping these endless windbags. One should stop talking and DO something at last, he claims.
The second part of the movie is taking place indoor, in the spacious sitting room where we meet Alexander’s wife Adelaide, Little Man’s doctor and family friend Victor, and the nursing maid Julia. Alexander is contemplating some Russian icon paintings in a book. “Such remarkable refinement! … Such pure, childlike innocence. … Like a prayer.” The postman Otto arrives on these premises with a gift for Alexander. All these people are chatting along. There is an atmosphere of absurd hopelessness and boredom, with Alexander complaining again that he finds himself, in spite of all his philosophical studies, restricted and fettered.
The interior is bourgeois, with white curtains often flowing in the wind, green dark walls, and is a frame for all these loose conversations about life, regrets and failures. Some tension builds up. The apparition of the other family maid Maria breaks this endless chatting. She is like the coming of the unexpected, and her quiet, withdrawn, nearly absent demeanour attracts attention. She represents the part of ourself that is away from society, this part that is already surrendered, not begging, not searching. She represents the witch-like, feminine figure that society finds odd, scary. The wild feminine looking at us with frank, moving eyes, without which nothing is possible, no healing, no transformation. The ballet continues, with somehow empty talks, and characters placed as if in a Renaissance painting. Otto explains that he is a collector of incidents, strange or unexplained events. “We are simply blind. We see nothing.”
Comes eventually the time of the apocalypse. A terrible and cataclysmic war is tearing apart their world. This is shown through a ballet of characters coming and going under the vacarm of planes, window panes slamming, the smashing of a glass jar full of milk on the floor, and sepia scenes of a world panic. The subsequent scenes are shown with darker, less colourful tones. Alexander and his family become rigid, paralysed into non-action, and acquire faces and bodies lit by the flimsy, worried light of a television diffusing the news, as in a Rembrandt’s painting. The TV’s injunction is “Stay where you are now. Nowhere is safer!” There is deep dejection, prostration and powerlessness amongst them all. Alexander’s wife Adelaide is falling apart and expressing her deep suffering. How she has resisted all her life, never giving in, never going along with anything, for fear of dying.
Tarkovsky once wrote: “Suffering is germane to our existence; indeed, how without it, should we be able to ‘fly upwards’.” We are all living through some kind of apocalypse. Death is looming at us, suffering is our lot, and we have to be prepared for the unexpected. Nothing is certain. Nothing lasts forever. Only some sacrifice or offering can truly save us. And it is not something that can be organised. It must come as the only viable thing to do, as a bow, a surrender of all that which in ourself is doing, accepting, resisting, escaping. All that which wants to run the show and not let it all be in the hands of the indescribable that contains us and every thing.
Alexander is shattered and moved beyond description. A prayer comes through his lips, asking the Lord to not let them die, and to deliver them of these terrible times, “All those who do not believe in Thee, because they are blind… Those who haven’t given Thee a thought… simply because they haven’t yet been truly miserable.“ He makes the promise to give up everything he has, including his family and house, if his prayer is heard and granted, if this could save them all from this horrible war. He himself is the gift that he humbly brings to God, as a sacrifice.
There are black and white scenes where we see Alexander walking in a desolate land, among sad abandoned houses. Tarkovsky, as often in his movies, shows the raw elements of life. Some long panning movements of sepia coloured images of the earth, the mud, the sound of water, the snow, dead leaves in the wind. We hear Alexander’s breath, and this lancinant sound of a feminine voice calling. Where is the reality, the solid ground? Is this only a dream? The solution comes from Otto begging him to go and sleep with Maria who, he is convinced, is a witch “in the best possible sense“. She is, according to him, their only chance to see the world redeemed.
Alexander realises that his life can become a work of art. He rides his bike to where Maria is staying. He has brought with him a pistol. Maria welcomes him, but is bewildered by his advances. She refuses and proposes to accompany him back to his house. Maria’s attitude is one of absolute kindness and compassion. As she turns again towards Alexander, she sees him pointing his gun at himself, in an act of total desperation. She is moved towards him. Her tenderness is beyond measure. We hear again the rumbling of jet-fighters passing above the house. This is the paroxysmal point of the movie, the point of elevation, shown through a scene of absolute unconditional love. This is the resolution where everything dissolves in pure love.
Maria is the Christian figure of Mary. She represents the uncaused, unborn, and ultimately deathless nature of our true being. Alexander’s action is the gift or sacrifice of our false self, of all that which, in us, is only an illusory appearance. Everything sinful, unnecessary, false, acquired is offered, surrendered into the still, peaceful, loving presence of the goddess, who is also his own pristine being. She takes him back into herself. His offering is total. Through this act, which is not a doing, we will be reborn in the true one infinite, eternal being, always perfectly healed, where no suffering, no apocalypse or imagined catastrophe can stand. In the painting, Mary smiles with loving indifference. It is Jesus, the Son of God, that extends his arm towards the gift, or offering. You yourself are the receiver of your own sacrifice. You yourself are the eternal reality behind all objective experiences.
All is redeemed now. This is symbolised by the coming back to a form of normality, a naturalness. The light and colours of everyday life have come back, darkness has merged into the light. Alexander wakes up on the sofa, in his house. There is no evidence that something dramatic ever happened. But everything seems to go astray, acquiring again an absurd, crazy, nonsensical reality. In a spectacular scene, Alexander, acting on his promise, puts his house on fire and is being chased around by men nurses in front of this immense blaze. Of course, this is a metaphor, as is the whole film. Every belongings have to burn down. Everything that has an objective quality, and that we use deceitfully as a means to happiness, everything including our own imagined self, has to be thrown into the fire of our true nature. This is also indeed a form of apocalypse.
The hero running pitifully in front of the nurses is the image of the separate self in us, whose illusory presence has to be realised, as well as the ridiculousness of its previous belief in being a real person, of its quest for happiness in the world of objects. And this is not an extraordinary event. In fact, nothing has changed. For behind all that is madness, illusion, and chaos, stands — sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed — a reality which is the first and only thing there is, containing everything, including the petty thoughts, the unfulfilled dreams, the dreadful feelings, and the madness of humanity. Including man who do not understand that everything is already perfectly healed and achieved, beautiful, sane, fulfilled, happy, free. Including Alexander running around with his crazy family and friends.
Tarkovsky’s cinema is pure poetry, and ‘The Sacrifice’ is a poetic parable on the meaning of our existence. The film ends with nothing left to be said. Little man is carrying water and watering the withered, barren tree by the shore. Silence is the healing factor in renewal. And this renewal expresses itself again through the rising of the divine music of Bach’s ‘Erbarme Dich’. But a new voice has been acquired. Little man, lying under the tree, is speaking for the first time:
“’In the beginning was the Word.’
Why is that, Papa?”
Upward panning movement of the tree that fades into the white…
Film by Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)
Text by Alain Joly
Painting by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
‘The Sacrifice’ (1986) – Written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Director of photography: Sven Vilhem Nykvist
(With actors Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Allan Edwall, Valerie Mairesse…)
Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was a Russian film director, but also a writer, film editor, and theorist of cinema. He made seven feature films in his career: ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Andrei Rublev’, ‘Solaris’, ‘Mirror’, and ‘Stalker’, all produced in the Soviet Union. His two last movies, ‘Nostalghia’ and ‘The Sacrifice’, were produced respectively in Italy and Sweden. He won many prices, including the ‘Grand Prix’ in the Cannes Festival for ‘The Sacrifice’ in 1986. He died later the same year in Paris. Ingmar Bergman said: “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
The film ‘The Sacrifice’ is available here on YouTube…
Listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Erbarme Dich’ in St Matthew Passion, with Julia Hamari on YouTube…
Check Paula Marvelly’s wonderful page ‘Andrei Tarkovsky: Instant Light’ on her blog ‘The Culturium’…
– ‘Andrei Tarkovsky’ by Sean Martin – (Kamera Books)
– ‘Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema’ – by Andrei Tarkovsky – (University of Texas Press)
– ‘Andrey Tarkovsky: Life and Work: Film by Film, Stills, Polaroids & Writings’ – by Andrey Tarkovsky – (Distributed Art Publishers)
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