The Sacrifice review: A cinematic offering

Last Updated: Mon, May 20, 2019 13:22 hrs

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 film tells a tale of a man willing to sacrifice himself to avert a third world war.

Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilisation of prosthetics, is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)

Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, released in the year of his passing, is perhaps one of his bleakest and simultaneously his most hopeful films. Like many great filmmakers at the end of their career, one can trace a sophisticated development of ideas about the world and Man in the works of the Russian.

With its oneiromantic logic and contemplative imagery, its lengthy takes and fluid poetical tracking shots, Tarkovsky revealed the brecciated nature of modern life. As was true of many of his films before, his imagist stillness intends to evoke in the viewer a longing for transcendence and meaning.

Although much of body of work had been about thoughtful men in the midst of looming war, the rising tensions of the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear holocaust, brought from within his mind a stern warning about the corruption of materialism and its perpetual killing of hope.

The Sacrifice or its original Swedish language title Offret is the story of Alexander (Erland Josephson), a retired actor living with his wife, stepdaughter and his youngest son, who’s only referred to as ‘Little Man’ (incidentally, he is temporarily mute due to a throat operation). Perhaps not coincidentally, this is a combination of the two nicknames of the first atomic bombs, namely ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’.

Alexander prepares for a birthday gathering in his remote estate, but events further away will soon make a very large impact on his celebration. Midway through the visit, an announcement is issued from the TV - war has broken out, and nuclear annhiliation is most likely imminent. In the midst of everyone freaking out, Alexander tries to strike a bargain with God to prevent the destruction of the human race. He agrees to give up everything he values in life, including his beautiful home and beloved son (Tommy Kjellqvist). Things only get stranger after this point.

Conversations and monologues muse on the nature of truth, life and the fear of death, spiritual degradation and materialism while intermittent dream sequences allude to these underlying themes.

In some sense the film deals with impermanence of things but in another it is a tale of unbroken continuity. Nothing seems to last and yet nothing ever seems to stop, despite individual sacrifices. If one leaves something behind, another picks it up and continues on. It is as though Tarkovsky, dying of cancer at the time, sent us a message with this film: when he is gone, someone else will continue the work he has been doing. Or as Schrodinger said: “No self is of itself alone. It has a long chain of intellectual ancestors. The ‘I’ is chained to ancestry by many factors.”

Like all of Tarkovsky's work, existential concerns are central to The Sacrifice. The movie was specifically made as a direct homage to Ingmar Bergman, whose movies trod similar ground. In fact, Tarkovsky even made use of the Swedish director's long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, as well as Bergman's favourite filming locations and one of his regular leads, Erland Josephson, to play Alexander. The Sacrifice is a visual stunner, with scenes often staged in the grim-visaged grey of dusk, even though its opening scenes set in a time before a potential nuclear winter is caught in vivid greens.

This is a spare and haunting work that weaves its spell slowly yet powerfully. Every shot is framed with loving care, and Tarkovsky allows the camera to remain fixed on a scene as events unfold. It's perhaps the most beautifully photographed film I've ever seen. There's very little music during the course of the movie, yet subtle, mysterious sounds contribute to an overall feeling of mystery and foreboding.

As Tarkovsky's last hurrah The Sacrifice is a tough nut to crack and, like much of the director's work, requires a lot of patience to appreciate. Acclaimed reviewer Roger Ebert wrote of the The Sacrifice that it is ‘not the sort of movie most people will choose to see, but those with the imagination to risk it may find it rewarding.’

To that Tarkovsky, whose father had been a Soviet poet, might’ve quoted Rumi as an assertion to a hopeful curtain on his oeuvre.

“Come, come, whoever you are.

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving — it doesn't matter,

Ours is not a caravan of despair.”

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

Also read: Waking Life: A review