This is Tarkovsky channeling Bergman through his own unique visuals and esoteric style, and also a fitting end to his astonishing but short-lived career of cinematic gems.
Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
1986 | Sweden | Drama | 149 mins | 1.66:1 | Swedish
PG (passed clean) for some mature themes
Cast: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Allan Edwall
Plot: At the dawn of WWIII, a man searches for a way to restore peace to the world and finds he must give something in return.
Awards: Won Grand Jury Prize, FIPRESCI Prize, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and Best Artistic Contribution for Cinematography (Cannes). Won 1 BAFTA – Best Foreign Language Film
Source: Argos Films
Subject Matter: Slightly Heavy
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Blu-ray – first published 10 Aug 2015)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film is a wonder, the final word by a filmmaker battling with cancer. The legendary director passed away months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes for this work. The Sacrifice is best seen as Tarkovsky channeling Ingmar Bergman, whom he admired greatly. Bergman likewise returned the honour, master to master.
Employing Bergman’s very own cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Tarkovsky tells an existential tale of fates and destinies through the lens of a family living together in a remote island where the main source of communication comes from a psychical mailman and television news.
The lead character Alexander played by Erland Josephson celebrates his birthday, but news of heartbreaking fatalism strikes the family causing them to be hysterical – World War III, with possible nuclear annihilation, has begun.
The Sacrifice is made up of a series of long takes (there are only over a hundred shots), hauntingly and coldly captured by Nykvist. It is a dialogue-heavy piece compared to Tarkovsky’s more meditative ruminations, but it is not without his visual and aural flair.
“In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?”
The occasional loud roars of fighter jets punctuate the still air, off to somewhere to indulge in genocide, yet in the quieter moments, Tarkovsky repeats a calming traditional Japanese music piece that is diegetically played on the radio, evoking a disquieting sense of temporary serenity.
Doom is impending, but what if one makes a pact with God, to be the sacrifice to restore the world? That’s for Alexander to decide, and through his internal struggle with faith and fate, the film also reveals Tarkovsky’s fears of his mortality, and his disdain for humanity’s penchant for self-destruction.
The climax, a burning house shot in one long take, is utterly brilliant. It is a masterstroke by a filmmaker who is peerless in capturing the ephemeral and prolonging it, thus extending the moment when Man becomes one with time, unable to move forward or turn back – this is symbolic of how we are continually (and eternally) trapped in our human condition, and like Alexander, we struggle to reconcile fate with faith.
The Sacrifice will reward fans of Tarkovsky, even if it continues to be regarded as his weakest work. I don’t see it as any lesser a film than any of his other works, because in all honesty, Tarkovsky’s esoteric and philosophical brand of cinema far transcends comparison within or without. It is best appreciated on its own terms, because he is simply in a league of his own.