1980s, 4/4, Andrei Tarkovsky, Drama, Review

The Sacrifice

Watch The Sacrifice | Prime Video

#3 in my ranking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.

Made while Andrei Tarkovsky knew that he was on death’s door, The Sacrifice is the final work of one of cinema’s finest filmmakers. A plea in the face of a literal Armageddon on a small scale, it deals with the sense of the apocalypse in the most overt and immediate way, speaking directly to Tarkovsky’s obvious sense of mortality. That immediacy makes The Sacrifice a surprisingly visceral film when coming from Tarkovsky, the maestro of long, slow takes, made all the more interesting because the film also functions as a paean to Ingmar Bergman.

When Tarkovsky was negotiating with Soviet authorities over the final cut of Stalker, he supposedly said, “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.” Both Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman were known for slower films, often barebones productions with a heavy focus on character and the human face. When Tarkovsky went to Italy to make Nostalghia, he hired Bergman regular Erland Josephson to play Domenico. Exiled from his home in the Soviet Union (with the Soviets quite literally holding his son hostage for a time), Tarkovsky went to Sweden to work with Josephson again, as well as Bergman’s most frequent cinematography Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s Academy Award winning production designer Anna Asp, and even Daniel Bergman, Ingmar’s son, in a small capacity. On top of the talent, there’s an emphasis on soul-baring dialogue, especially in the first third of the film, that would feel at home more in a Bergman film than in a Tarkovsky film (it’s too personal and less philosophical).

Josephson plays Alexander, a retired actor turned lecturer who lives with his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), stepdaughter Marta (Filippa Franzen), and son Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist) in a remote two-story house in Sweden. It’s Alexander’s birthday, so they are joined by the newly local postman Otto (Allan Edwall) and the local physician (and Adelaide’s lover) Victor (Sven Wollter). Together with Alexander’s two servants Maria (Guorun Gisladottir) and Julia (Valerie Mairesse), they congregate in the house for a birthday dinner. Everything seems bright and cheerful and cordial, and then Alexander leaves the house to look for his mute son who has gone missing.

The bright and colorful color palette suddenly turns drab and desaturated, almost to the point of being monochromatic. One of the advantages of running through a director’s work in order is to see the evolution of style and discovering the purpose of certain stylistic choices. At no point in Tarkovsky’s career was the changing of film stock, or the abrupt change in color timing, meant to imply that the action displayed was happening at the same time or same place as the footage around it. In every color film he made from Solaris on, he used black and white or tinted footage to show that there was something materially different from before. I bring this up because the essay by Robert Bird that accompanies the Blu-ray from Kino says in no uncertain terms, and bases quite a bit of his analysis on the idea, that everything happens here definitely, most definitely, happens for real. It doesn’t. This is all a dream. It being real doesn’t even jive with the thematic focus of his past few films where characters dealt with great faith in the face of seemingly nothing.

Anyway, Alexander comes back to discover the entire household sitting around the television after news of the outbreak of World War III has reached them, quickly followed by the television getting turned off and the people needing to deal with the news. Adelaide immediately has a mental breakdown requiring a shot of drugs to get her sleep. The rest are much more circumspect in their reaction to the end of the world, conversation eventually moving from what to do next (whether they should drive northward or stay) to how this could have happened. The overall conflict is never described in any kind of detail (lending further credence to the idea that this is really just a subconscious creation of Alexander’s) and the focus solely rests on the people in the house with Alexander retreating to his upper room and praying to God to take it all away, offering up all of his possessions and his family to undo what has come to the world. Otto sneaks up and offers him a way out, though. He must go to Maria, the servant, for she is a witch, and lay with her to save his family. And so he goes, laying with her before waking up in his own couch in his upper room as the colors of the first section of the film return.

I want to bring up Bird’s essay again because he seems particularly confused by the transition from what was Alexander’s dream back to the waking world. He doesn’t know what reversed the Apocalypse, Alexander’s promise to God or Alexander’s sleeping with Maria. Well, it was neither, because it was all a dream. However, what’s important is that Alexander thought it was real. Whether it really happened and he’s been drawn back in time or whether it was just a premonition of things to come, he has a choice about how to move forward. He could take the laying with the witch as his freedom to disregard the vision, or he could follow through on his promise to God.

Looking at the poster above, I think it’s obvious to anyone how he chooses, and that’s the point. Alexander, much like Alexei in Nostalghia, was a man of little faith at the beginning, and through a Saul on his way to Damascus moment, he’s given a vision of truth that he feels compelled to act upon, changing everything about his life as an act of faith. He gets his family to leave the house for the morning, and he burns the house to the ground (which had to be done twice during production because Nykvist’s camera jammed the first time through necessitating producers funding the hasty construction of the house again). This fits perfectly with Stalker’s unbroken faith in the Room and Andrei’s walk with the candle. It may be nothing, but faith drives him to act.

Tarkovsky died less than a year after completing The Sacrifice, and I think the bookending images of the film, along with a story that Alexander tells the mute Little Man in the beginning, help provide some small solace in the passing of one of cinema’s giants far too early. Alexander and Little Man plant a dead tree by the side of the road near their house with a tale about how a monk planted a similarly dead tree atop a mountain and spend several years climbing to that spot to water it, eventually resulting in the tree springing fruit. The film ends with Little Man, largely absent from the film and missing much of the excitement, quietly watering that tree by the road by himself. The tree has sprouted no fruit, but the implication is that he will continue to water it for years himself. This feels like the perfect visual metaphor for Andrei Tarkovsky’s struggles with faith in the harsh environment of the Soviet Union, a place he wanted to go back to because it was his home but never could. It’s hard to think of a better image for Tarkovsky to have gone out on.

The Sacrifice is something special. Many final films of great directors feel like the spent leavings of a great mind, but Tarkovsky went out swinging for the fences. His quiet ode to his cinematic hero, Ingmar Bergman, has a surprising life and vitality all its own that makes it truly shine in an already bright cinematic oeuvre. It’s a beautiful movie that takes its time to fruit, but fruits beautifully nonetheless.

Rating: 4/4

6 thoughts on “The Sacrifice”

  1. I just started watching this; I’m at the 90 minute mark and will probably stop for the night. But yes, this is an excellent film. So far, the only really discordant element is Otto the postman–he seems like he wandered in from an early David Lynch film. He doesn’t derail the film or anything, but he doesn’t seem to fit very neatly.

    What I wanted to mention is the outstanding sound design for this film. It’s incredible, especially for being so quiet. Tiny little sounds, perfectly set (the coin rolling when Alexander lies on the couch, for example), all the dripping water and the distant voices. It’s also chilling when the “attack” scene happens–nothing but loud noise and some lights and an unfortunate jar of while fluid. I would *love* to have that kind of level of control in my own work.

    Anyway, I’m glad you recommended this, I’m enjoying it.

    Like

    1. Tarkovsky really understood what he was doing, especially from a technical point of view. He was just so intentionally artsy (especially considering his dismissiveness of commercial film) that he’s hard for a lot of people to get into.

      I’m glad that you’re enjoying it and hope that you do complete it. The Sacrifice is something special.

      I still wish he had lived long enough to see the fall of the USSR. A Tarkovsky film made back in Russia after the fall of communism would have been really interesting, I think.

      Like

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