The Sacrifice (1986)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Erland Josephson, Allan Edwall, Susan Fleetwood
My Rating: 8/10
In Short: A marvellous, beautiful final statement; shattering
The Sacrifice was Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film. He completed it shortly before being diagnosed with lung cancer, and within a year he was dead. Though at the time Tarkovsky did not know his disease was terminal, we can sense in this marvellous, beautiful final statement a director bidding goodbye to the world and embracing spirituality and the afterlife. The Sacrifice is a shattering, intensely moving swan song, startlingly beautiful, lyrically written and masterfully directed.
The film tells of Alexander, a middle-aged man who lives with his mute son on an island in Sweden. In the beginning, he is planting a tree and telling his son a story. The boy, known simply as Little Man, looks on in admiration. Then, as the two are walking away, they are met by the postman Otto, a good friend of Alexander’s, who delivers to him a message from his friends at the stage troupe with whom he once performed plays by Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. They chat for a little while, and Otto cycles off. All of this, from the tree planting to Otto cycling away, is accomplished in one distant long take, that has to last around ten minutes or so. Many of the shots in The Sacrifice are like this, and Tarkovsky gives us a hint of what is to come from his glorious camera throughout this beautiful, enchanting 148 minute film.
Soon we discover it is Alexander’s birthday, and his friends, including his wife and grown daughter, come to visit him and bring presents. During this celebration, in which Otto shares a dark tale of a woman whose son died in the war, they are informed via radio and televison that World War III has broken out, and many countries, including Sweden, are under attack. Everyone is terrified, but Alexander’s wife Adelaide has a particularly horrific reaction, collapsing into a fit of hysteria and uncontrollable screaming. She has to be tranquilised and put to sleep. These events all unfold in langurous, unbroken shots of sometimes unbearable length. Tarkovsky does not shy away from anything.
Despite its length, there are not really very many plot developments in this film. Tarkovsky lets every plot turn unfold slowly, never rushing through anything, and it is due to this risky slowness that the film shows its true brilliance and genius, and also suffers from its only flaw. I have no problem with long movies (one of my favourite films, Fanny and Alexander, is 312 minutes long), but this film doesn’t need to be 148 minutes, and could do with a bit (not a lot) of trimming. And also, the task that Alexander must complete halfway through the film, which involves having sex with one of the characters who is supposedly a witch, is shot beautifully but is overlong and the idea behind it is rather tedious and inexplicable. However, it does bring us to one of the film’s most beautiful images, of two people levitating in midair (perhaps a reference to an almost identical image in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror).
The film redeems itself, however, with a stunning finale culminating in an image I will never forget: Alexander collapsing into the muddy grass as a giant mansion burns behind him. This is a long take, something around three to five minutes, and as his family chase him around the land around the burning wreck, the camera silently follows, examining the utter despair distantly and coldly. Tarkovsky is one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever lived, and in images like these, he shows his genius by simply observing, and evoking strong emotions from these observations within the viewer. His camera rarely gets involved; it simply watches silently. The Sacrifice is a brilliant, amazing film that overwhelms the eyes, lingers in the mind and haunts the soul.