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Meaning of the Sacrifice by TarkovskyReaction Paper

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Sacrifice

The Meaning of What I instantly liked about Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice was its opening meditation on the gift of the Magi to the Infant Jesus in Leonardo's Renaissance painting. That, coupled with the inspiring oratorio of Bach, immediately captured me and led me to believe that I was in for something special -- a treat -- something of substance, something the director wanted to communicate to me, something deep, something higher, something spiritual. Having an inclination to these things, I was immediately interested in what Tarkovsky could tell me about the subject.

As I feel that music can make or break a movie, the decision of Tarkovsky to start off with a classical piece like Bach's Matthew's Passion was clearly an effort to "make" his movie -- and so far so good -- I'm hooked. Then the camera pans up the painting to the Tree of Life (a foreshadowing of Terrence Malicks' uber-spiritual film that would follow decades later?) and cuts to the scene of the hero of the film planting a barren tree that looks like it is a remnant of a bombed-out village. The landscape is swept of everything superfluous: one sees only the sea and the land and the tracks of an automobile which have worn into the road. The image instantly brings to mind the idea of eternity, especially where the land juts into the sea at the bend and the bare tree limbs reach desperately out for life. The clear sky seems to silently consider the world that the hero inhabits, approving his efforts to restore a dead tree to life. The significance is apparent: the spiritual Tree of Life is missing -- all these characters have is a barren tree that brings forth no fruit. That will all change when the hero makes his offering/sacrifice to God in exchange for the continuation of life for his family. I like that Tarkovsky develops a number of themes in this manner, establishing them right off the bat in a beautiful way: the spiritual theme of offering, the anchoring theme of rebirth/redemption, and the theme of "passion" -- alluded to in Bach's Matthew's Passion of Our Lord. Tarkovsky is linking all of these ideas together and implying a connection between the human and the divine, between the earthly and the spiritual, that is reflected in the opening scene, which is both desolate and full of wonder and haunting beauty at the same time.

That haunting beauty is one of the other things that I liked most about this movie. It is everywhere: in the characters he introduces, the things they talk about, the unnamed dread that seems to accompany them at all times, the empty-seeming rooms of the house, the landscape, the weight of eternity.

What is great about the opening scene, too, is the way that the hero totally misinterprets the story of the monk who watered the barren tree everyday for three years until it was finally covered with blossoms. The hero asserts that there is something to be said for a system, a ritual and that something as simple as flushing a glass of water down the toilet everyday for a year could change the world! It is an absurd notion and it shows that he is lost for the moment in intellectual, abstract flights of fancy. He sees the beauty of the barren tree, which looks especially Oriental (another reference to the three wise men who opened the movie), but he cannot place its spiritual significance; he can only grasp at the significance of habit -- he has yet to distinguish between good and bad (watering a tree as opposed to wasting water down a toilet). This was especially poignant for me, because so often in our own spiritual journeys we are attracted by beauty but fail to really see the significance of things as we get lost in our own thoughts and abstractions, feeling self important like the professor, who enjoys spouting off and hearing himself talk (meanwhile, his son dutifully places rocks around the tree as he is told -- obedient and silent just like the monk's assistant in the story, which the hero just told -- it is as if the son understands more deeply than the father who tells the story). We are often too impressed with ourselves, which causes us to miss the greater point, which is, as Tarkovsky shows, that we are not the masters of this world, but creatures who must appeal to a Creator and who must offer something to Him, as the Magi showed us in the beginning of the film.

The mailman arrives to further push the theme of giving (just as the Magi offer gifts at the birth of the Savior, the mailman comes to wish happy birthday to the hero). (Another symbol -- the Savior sacrifices Himself for humanity, so too will the hero sacrifice himself -- his home, his words -- for his family and for humanity.) The mailman also reveals the hero's plight: he cannot see correctly (he has forgotten his glasses, and this revelation reinforces our sense that he misses the point of important spiritual truths like the one in the monk's story). So the mailman reads the letter that he has come to deliver. The mailman also acts as a spiritual emissary: he quotes the letter, "God grant you health," and then inquires as to the hero's relationship with God. The hero confesses that his relationship with God is non-existent. The mailman cheerfully replies that "it could be worse." It is a funny exchange which supports our sense that this is a comedic, hopeful story (as all stories that are based on the sacrifice/redemption motif are).

The shots are long and contemplative, which underscores the mystical nature of the film: it is almost like watching Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which channels Tarkovsky in its capture of landscape, mood, light, and inner human depths. The interior of the elegantly-styled home and the mysterious air of the mailman add to the great sense of some impending climax about to happen to these people. The stillness of the shots or the way that the camera glides slowly from room to room as though drifting in quietly on the breeze suggests that a powerful restraining force is at work. It reminds me of the style of Malick in The Thin Red Line when he slowly steers the camera slowly across the wild, grassy hills. The way that Tarkovsky allows all the actors to turn their backs to the camera as they consider the mystery during the conversation of the mailman and his story about the woman and the photograph adds to the sense that we are observing these people in a real way, as though we were there yet unobserved.

When the terrible news comes that apocalyptic war is near, the members of the house and their guests are immediately sunk into their own privates thoughts and grievances. But now the hero seems to be at a crisis moment -- he says he's been waiting for this all his life -- it is a moment to act, a moment to do something. As the hero's wife becomes hysterical, calling on the men to act, to do something, it becomes clear that there is nothing that any of them can do. However, the hero begins to pray: he renews his relationship with God. He speaks of those who don't believe in Him because they are blind are haven't been miserable enough yet to realize their need. His prayer comes across as genuine. It is a striking moment. He looks right into the camera and makes his lament and his promise to sacrifice all he has if only God will spare the world. Then he goes to sleep.

What follows is difficult to understand. It appears to be a dream sequence in which the mailman returns to tell the hero that only Maria can save them (is this a reference to the mother of God?) and that he must lie with Maria and she will save them all because she is a witch. The hero does this reluctantly and Maria lies with him after he threatens to shoot himself. Is it a dream? Is it not a dream? The ladder which he uses in the "dream" is still outside the window in the morning. Was it there prior to the dream? Or was the dream not a dream after all? If not, what is the meaning of this "witch intervention"? It is odd and difficult to decipher. I liked what the movie was building towards but this sequence is so strange that I don't know what to think anymore.

And then, when the hero wakes and finds that world is still there, he decides he has to make good on his promise. This too is strange. Has the mystical experience been so powerful for him? While I understand the theme of the sacrifice, this seems almost too twisted to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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