There is an overwhelming feeling of sadness that pervades upon realizing that The Sacrifice was Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film. Throughout the movie there’s a distinctive elegiac feeling, as if the filmmaker was giving his all, knowing that this would be the last time he would be able to put his ideas onscreen. Of course, this could very well be said of almost every film in Trakovsky’s oeuvre. During a career that spanned a little over two decades, the Russian filmmaker crafted just seven works, each more affecting and mature than the previous one.
From the dark ode to youth that was Ivan’s Childhood to his stunning Stalker which was sci-fi by way of The Wizard of Oz , Tarkovsky specialized in creating haunting artworks that resonate because of their extreme melancholy and existentialist wonderment. To watch his films in chronological order allows you to deduce a sequence of sorts in which we see him create a dialogue with a supreme force he wasn’t even sure even existed.
Tarkovsky’s films are filled with religious iconography (his epic Andrei Rublev concentrates on the life of one of the Russian icon masters) and through his profound dialogues and the raw work of his actors, he often created moments of such sublimity that “spiritual” was perhaps the most facile adjective one could attribute them. Perpetuating the intention of Ingmar Bergman (one of his idols), the filmmaker continuously tried to get answers to complex questions, some of which, perhaps, can’t even begin to be responded. Such is the case of The Sacrifice where he wonders exactly just how effective the power of prayer can be.
Set in the Swedish island of Gotland, the film takes place over the birthday weekend of Alexander (Erland Josephson) an aging atheist writer living with his wife (Susan Fleetwood), teenage daughter and young son (Tommy Kjellqvist), who everyone refers to as “Little Man”. As the first guests arrive to the celebration, the film unfolds like a slightly more cheerful version of Cries and Whispers with people discussing the darkest topics, reminiscing about the past and standing on different planes to achieve the classic compositions favored by director of photography Sven Nykvist. Halfway through the film, and just as the conversations are getting heavier, the party is shook by the announcement that a nuclear holocaust has unleashed and the world is about to end.
Shocked by these news, the characters begin to react with emotions that range from despair to utter calm, a point at which Alexander decides it might be time to bargain with God. He will sacrifice everything he loves, if only things will go back to normal. Whether he believes in him or not isn’t the question at stake, the dilemma lies in what the response will be.
Relying on an even more complex metaphysical and philosophical background than usual, Tarkovsky explores the idea that God might be an illusion created just for our own sake and comfort. It’s actually fascinating to realize that during most of the shooting, the director was oblivious to the fact that he was already dying. If he had been diagnosed before, would the story have been even darker?
As it stands on its own, the story is an appropriately beautiful letter from a father to a son (was Tarkovsky also taking on the role of God and trying to explain “the end” to his audience?); in a strangely Biblical sense we are told on several occasions that “in the beginning there was word”, as if Alexander is trying to make sense of the fact that both intellect and spirituality could ever converge at a primal point of creation. As is the norm with Tarkovsky, there are symbols that make his ideas even more complex, like the fact that during the running time we almost never listen to Little Man speak, even if in a way the entire movie revolves around his character.
The physical presence of deities is also dealt with, particularly during the scene in which a government figure on television announces the impending doomsday. Tarkovsky and Nykvist seem to make a point out of the fact that we can listen, but never see this ominous figure. All we see is a flickering light emanating from the screen. If something should be made about the effect of the media and the slightly saddening realization that the apocalypse might be announced on TV and not through some operatic display in the skies, Tarkovsky has little time to worry about it and he proceeds to take us right into Alexander’s mind as he bargains with God to accept his inverse hecatomb.
Despite its seemingly somber tone, The Sacrifice is a film of such remarkable beauty that one has to wonder if, perhaps unintentionally, Tarkovsky wasn’t himself trying to bargain with God into letting him create more. His creative process is documented in the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky which takes up a whole disc in this special DVD edition. The film was made by Michal Leszczylowski, who served as editor of The Sacrifice and who unarguably had access to some iconic footage.
Most remarkable of all might be the sequence where we see the burning of an entire set fails to please the perfectionist director. While other filmmakers would’ve tried to work with what they had, Tarkovsky appears to be personally affected by the outcome and his reaction upon finding out that the studio would pay for a new set for him to burn down is haunting.
Besides being a genius filmmaker, Tarkovsky also was a great thinker who tried to turn the art of cinema into philosophical statements. His idea of “sculpting with time” is one of the most influential aesthetic theories of the 20th century, and none of his movies encompass this better than The Sacrifice, which contains sequences you want to watch over and over because of their elegance and profound themes.
In the movie, Alexander reflects upon listening to the following quote “Generally the result of all poetic striving lies so far from its author that one can hardly believe it is a man made creation.” The feeling of earthly divinity suggested by these words epitomizes what Tarkovsky’s work was all about.