The Sacrifice

Studio: Kino Classics

May 31, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Andrei Tarkovsky was a very serious filmmaker. Whether he was dealing with science fiction (Stalker, Solaris), the abstract (Mirror) or war (Ivan’s Childhood), there is a quiet intensity bubbling throughout. Characters rarely crack smiles, and a permeating sense of dread is always present. In theory, this may sound exhausting. In practice and execution, it’s one of the most rewarding, though brief, filmographies of his era.

His final film, 1986’s The Sacrifice is a literal departure. While he had already left Russia for his previous feature, Nostalghia, this is his lone film shot in Sweden.  It’s also a culmination of familiar themes relating to fear, death, and religion/spirituality.

The Sacrifice opens with Alexander, a journalist, planting a tree with his young son known only as Little Man. Later they join family and friends at Alexander’s remote home for his birthday. During the evening, a news bulletin follows a series of jets flying overhead announcing the imminence of a nuclear World War that sends those in attendance into a chaotic downward spiral first as screaming and panic and later calm acceptance and/or despair. Until then, The Sacrifice deals with far more human concerns for the every day. Alexander has begun to feel emptiness in the spoken word, there is a rift between him and his wife, his doctor friend is clearly agitated as he secretly plans to open a clinic in Australia and move far away in part, at least, due to Alexander’s wife Adelaide. Their relationship beyond doctor-patient remains relatively ambiguous.

With the roar of the planes and the newsreader explaining the dire circumstances befalling the world at large, the tone of dread becomes something more specifically tangible, overshadowing the petty worries of the day-to-day in some ways (Alexander offers God all of the things he holds dear to reverse it all) and exacerbates it in others (the doctor eventually tells Adelaide how he really feels). Then we have Otto, the part-time postman and paranormal enthusiast, who convinces Alexander to seek out one of the family servants who is also apparently a witch. By having sex with her, he may save everyone.

This is ludicrous, and will probably be a point of contention for those watching it. This shift feels sudden, and almost like it was drawn from a completely different story. There’s a good reason for that, because it probably was. In the accompanying documentary about the making of the film, it’s explained that Tarkovsky elected to combine two stories (The Sacrifice and The Witch) into this finished product. In the moment, the two halves feel awkward and disconnected, but after the conclusion it’s difficult to imagine the film without the witch subplot. And it’s in this subplot that the film explores the nature of faith and its litany of dangers when taken too literally.

Either by desperation or by genuine belief, Alexander goes to Maria the would-be witch. This is a sequence, with a special piece of magic, that Paul Schrader has cited as an inspiration for his new film First Reformed, and like that film, The Sacrifice is asking questions about faith and the circular conversations that would possibly come from an event like this. The nuclear war doesn’t actually happen, so Alexander burns his house down and destroys all his earthly possessions – and possibly his mind in the process – like he promised in his prayer. To Alexander, a believer, his faith was rewarded. To another, possibly the viewer, the war would have been avoided regardless and Alexander performed these destructive acts for no reason at all. The Sacrifice seems to be wrestling with these ideas, especially as Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Nykvist create several dreamlike images evoking a supernatural element (the levitation, the dreams). Is Alexander actually seeing evidence of his faith in action or is he only convincing himself that he sees these things to justify his choices? The answer is ambiguous, as it is likely meant to be.

Alexander’s almost literal meltdown results in one of the most impressive visual feats of Tarkovsky’s filmography, which is impressive considering how striking Stalker and Solaris are. Nykvist shoots the burning of the house in an unbroken, six-minute shot as it crumbles in the flames. It was the second effort, too, which meant the house burned twice and had to be rebuilt. The end result was worth it.

The Sacrifice evokes Ingmar Bergman both because of Nykvist’s presence and cast members who had collaborated with the Swedish auteur in prior films and due to the nature of Tarkovsky’s interests at this point in his career. This seems far more interested in the family dynamic as opposed to the isolated individual turmoil at the heart of many of his previous films.

How much of a filmmaker’s real-life should be read into the movie he’s made? None should be necessary, but it can serve as an interesting supplement that can provide some insight into where a creator’s head was at. Tarkovsky died of cancer at the end of 1986. Also, at the time of filming, his son was still in the Soviet Union and not allowed to leave. Needless to say, Tarkovsky was under plenty of personal duress, which could provide extra context to his familial concerns at the time.

The Kino-Lorber release is somewhat bare despite being on two discs. The first is the feature film while the second is the aforementioned feature-length documentary.

For those who respond to meditative cinema that deals in ambiguity, and especially those familiar with Tarkovsky’s work, this is a must. It works as a bit of an extension of his 1975 film Mirror, though it’s a bit more accessible on account that the narrative is far more linear and isn’t the abstract mosaic of the former film. Still, they both deal with imminent death and present thought-provoking statements on faith and action.


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