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Sacrifice versus damnation: salvation by the antithesis of the faith

The films The Sacrifice, by Andrei Tarkovsky, and Songs from Second Floor, by Roy Andersson, relate to when talking about faith, hypocrisy and men in search of salvation, and an intrinsic need for change.

By Simone Marques

In his innermost isolation, unheard by the excess of empty actions and words, abandoned in the middle of a dragging reality as they struggle to stay afloat, every man tries to find a meaning to his life. Dead tree watered every day, that is the image of the modern life he says “to live” ― a more appropriate verb for the luxury market, a car advertise or a tempting chimera. He dreams of being the master of himself and his own time in the eternal wait for the future to come, time when there will be finally enough time, when arrives the time to go to another world under the earth, joining the crotchets and worms. Only a miracle could save him from this damnation, the imaginary jackpot that gives him the strength to get up out of bed every day. Only in the inexplicable the tranquility could be reach, faith as salvation against the irremediable annihilation.

Faith, miracle, salvation and despair are common elements of The Sacrifice (Offret, 1986), by Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), and Songs from the second floor (Sånger från andra våningen, 2000), by Roy Andersson (1943). They are films that talk about men in search of redemption, the hypocrisy present in their struggle for survival and an intrinsic need for a change: self and reality. In the first film, these items appear as an existential shelter; in the second, as a mean of earning a living: “Life is a market,” says one character. In both movies the reality reached its bearable limit and there is nothing to expect from the future. Something fatal to mankind is foreseeded in The Sacrifice, an intangible apocalypse is intuited through the elements of an oppressive atmosphere. Something ominous too is about to come in Songs from the second floor, and some desperates try to save themselves through the trade of faith.

In Tarkovsky’s film, the faith in the salvation of is perceived by planting a tree, in the house on fire and by making love to a witch. I see the tree as a promise of a miracle, the initial act that can succeed in conversion; the burning home as the consummation of a past wanted to be forgotten, and the witch as a sign of exorcism of a personal faith that comes when a disaster is imminent; therefore it is a hypocritical belief, which springs from the seed of selfishness. Tarkovsky said, the scene of the burning house had no special meaning, which was just a whim, though he has done it twice. According to the Russian director, the important is one’s inmost, not the facts shown.

“Beloved is the one who sits down.” This parable of the poet Cesar Vallejo opens Songs from the second floor, and appears as a leitmotif throughout the film. The faith in salvation points to something we do not see, but it is significant through the golf clubs, owned by all those who “sit” and reflect some concern about the essence of which we do ignore. These objects, taken away from their function as part of a game, remain as a symbol of who was elected to a better life, the “beloved ones”, those who stablish the rules and can aspire to the second floor. We do not know what’s there, or if it exists indeed.

In The Sacrifice, Alexander is moved from himself as he foresee him as a fraud or that his life makes no sense ― a state of depersonalization. Thanks to Otto, the postman and messenger of truth, he heads to Mary, his Shangri-la. Mary is an icelandic (foreign), housekeeper (servitude) at Alexander’s home and she’s a witch (crazy and pagan). If Mary is the solution, then we have to admit that the opposite is the damnation: the christianity, the family, the bourgeois marriage, the rationality. The insanity is marginalized in both films. “In the eyes of all, there’s no doubt he (Alexander) is lost. But what is absolutely clear is that he saved”, says Tarkovsky (Andrei Tarkovsky: interviews. John Gianvito, University Press of Mississipi, 2006, p. 180).

To challenge the representations is another convergence point between the two works. The supposed meaning of something is exorcised by an action, as if reality was a scene of drama, believable but false. At The Sacrifice, the sound of the flute in the background seems, initially, to integrate the film’s score, and yet Alexander pulls out from a drawer a tape recorder playing that music. In Andersson’s film, the doctor of the asylum is an impostor. He is a patient who, thanks to the white coat, seems to be a priest of medicine. We are surprised when the nurses remove impatiently his white clothes, clipboard and stethoscope, revealing his identity. The stereotype is convincing.

The children, the future, are silent. In both films there is only one child. In Tarkovsky’s film, the boy is mute due to an accident that prevents him from talking. In Andersson’s, the girl is murdered in a wicked way, in a public ritual that deflowers decency. The girl is sacrified “for reading too much”, being thrown from a cliff over the rocks, precisely placed to disembowel her. She dared to “prepare herself for the unpredictable”, challenging “the elders experience”. Her eyes are blindfolded as she is driven to the altar of sacrifice, on the top of a mountain in front of the masters of the church, and the many powerful people, the blessed ones we see drunk after, in a place that could be the hall of hell, while others from the same group are running away from the city, carrying golf clubs in huge bags.

The son of Alexander is mutilated, speechless, but in the end, he managed to stammered the biblical phrase: “Why, Daddy?”. He asks for the reasons of being abandoned. But the father is no longer there to answer the question which falls in a vacuum, as the knowledge founds no echo. Only a miracle could make everything different. The pain we feel for the boy is not welcomed by Alexander; he sets the house on fire, living everything behind, even his beloved son. An ambulance, an indicator of illness, takes him away. We don’t understand him. It is curious how his obsession for changing the state of the things, even if it’s necessary to take his heart away, is not as understood as his resignation to what was previous established. When the girl is thrown over the rocks, in Sounds …, the institutionalized indifference paralyzes us, everyone is constantly drying with a white handkerchief, as if their hypocrisy sweat. The future is sacrified to keep everything as it is, and faith is part of this agreement, otherwhise the punishment will come.

The hypocrisy of Uffe, a seller of Jesus symbols, began at a trade show, where golf clubs compete with wooden crosses for the attention of the customers. The character says that Jesus “is the product” that can “add two more zeros” on Kalle’account, a businessman who lost everything and now must find a way to survive at any cost. “This is the year of Jesus, “he says to Kalle, “because the boy will make his two thousand birthday”. The opportunism of Uffe aims to save his money by exploring the peoples despair, at the expense of faith which he guarantees to be a good market.

His belief in the “product” comes to an end when Uffe realize that faith can no longer find buyers. He uses insulting words, calling Jesus a cheater, to be a “waste of time” in a scene that certainly would shocked the Christian world as he throws crosses with Christ crucified on a mountain of garbage. His attitude is charged with contempt and anger, something that certainly only in a Scandinavian film could occur. At a certain point, the box with wooden crucifixes bursts, the vilified objects fall to his feet and he kicks them with hatred. Finally, Uffe gets into the car, running over many crucifixes. We can hear the cracks as the wheels smash them. Kalle arrives shortly after with his cross but could not throw it away because the dead reappeared, as if asking for a cause of their own death. He tries to justify himself telling them that he had done everything for the cause “to put bread on the table”.

In these films, faith emerges in individuals only as an escape to despair, in capsizing under their own distress and impending tragedy, as an action in self-interest, an act of cowardice and hypocrisy. The Sacrifice and Sounds from the second floor pointed to the modern plague of the human emptiness, even more infected nowadays because of the so-called daily rush, the excess of important inutilities and the darkness of the consciousnesses in a world where knowledge is considered as a fault that needs to be concealed in order to the mediocrity to breath and criticism replaced by a proactive attitude. Values before considered crucial to the development of sensibility and character are in less demand, and we need above all to save the “self”.

The Sacrifice as presented by Tarkovsky is a miracle. A concrete choice that cuts you in half. Is taking life into own hands. It is unthinkable, an incomprehensible act and absurd to others and even to himself. Sacrifice is to save us from what is killing us. It’s pain, loss, transformation, confluence of life and death. Is to die to reborn.

These two films make very clear that we only turn ourselves to what really matters ― our most intimate and vital needs ― when faced to the apocalypse, the tragic, the disaster: the end. We believe, however, that wasting time with the elusive or dive in the depths of our inner self to find out what’s there, is not only boring, but can be harmful. And even facing the concerns for the truth, we learn that it is advisable to do as the devil and always keep an eye open because, as one Andersson’s character says, “society does not like losers ― see what they did to Jesus Christ.”

* Simone Marques is a cultural journalist and writer.

Translation by Albert Siedler.

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