Andrei Tarkovsky’s rather intimidating critical reputation rests on just seven feature films, of which The Sacrifice is chronologically the last, completed and released shortly before his untimely death in 1986. And in many ways this swansong can be considered his crowning glory, a bold, striking work rich in ideas, artistry and humanity, and one which is very distinctly ‘Tarkovskian’ in style.
To try to make out a clear conventional narrative thread through a Tarkovsky film is like trying to look for belly laughs in Schindler’s List; you ain’t going to find a lot. But The Sacrifice is his most straighforward of stories; the film is set in an unnamed Swedish coastal village, much like the island of Faro, where filmmaker Ingmar Bergman chose to retreat to in his later years. Alexander, an ageing atheist who lives on the island, is telling his young son a Zen-like parable about the planting and nurturing of a tree. The local postman (and doctor) cycles by, and offers up a discussion of Nietzche’s idea of eternal recurrence, which seems to chime with Alexander’s story. Visually, we are awash with tranquil seascapes and lush greenery.
It is Alexander’s birthday, and a small group of friends and family gather at his house. Discussion turns to his acting past, which then leads to a strange story about a lady who loses her son in a war, only to find him appearing in a photograph some twenty years later. Inside the house, the screen begins to asssume more desaturated, darker tones, which foretell what is to come; uncontrollable shaking in the room signals jets flying overhead, and in a nightmare-like sequence, we hear the official announcement that this is because some kind of nuclear armageddon has been initiated. As a mixture of hysteria and resignation overcomes those present, Alexander begins to question the nature of his lack of faith, but appears to be shown a possible way-out, the sacrifice of the title.
Loaded with religious symbolism, the film tries to show how man reacts when faced not merely with a spiritual crisis, but one brought on by the seemingly arbitrary annihilation of everything and everyone he loves. There are references to other Christian-inspired pieces of art, notably Leonardo’s The Adoration of the Magi and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, and this is clearly Tarkovsky’s own attempt to find religious expression through his chosen medium. It is perhaps ladelled on a bit too heavily at times; his visit to ‘Maria’, the supposed source of his possible redemption, teeters over the edge of subtlety, though it the scene is thankfully visually spare.
That the film is set on a Faro-like island is of great significance, as the spirit of Ingmar Bergman is ever-present, in part also to the presence of legendary Swedish cinematographer and long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist. The dialogue, in particular towards the start, has the air of the great master director’s work, in particular the films of his ‘Faith Trilogy’ of the early 1960s. The collaboration with Nykvist, who was DP on those three films, produces an interesting mixing of styles; the Swede’s trademark naturalistic lighting adding a mysterious air to Tarkvosky’s almost balletic, rhythmic long takes. The Sacrifice is famous for having one of the longest Average Shot Lengths in cinema history, some 72 seconds, one of the opening shots alone lasting nine and a half minutes.
Critics of the film may suggest that it is in fact overly stylised, and too Bergman-like in places. The symbolism, as mentioned above, is very heavy at times, but there are also moments of extreme painterly beauty, shots worthy of a Vermeer or Rembrandt painting. The transition from the lush, rich-hued palette at the start of the film, to the dark, menacing tones through the bulk of the middle apocalypse section is one of the most successful stylistic contrasts in cinema history. In one scene, Alexander tells a story about how he tried to tidy his dying mother’s overgrown garden for her, but once he had finished, he found the ‘order’ he had created to be ugly; this story, and the film as a whole, underlines Tarkovsky’s love of the natural world, the divine order which seems at times in contradiction to man’s destructive wills.
Andrei Rublev and Solyaris are generally regarded as Tarkovsky’s masterpieces, with The Sacrifice seen as being too difficult a watch, and possibly too flawed. But the film’s end dedication is the clue to its mysteries, and its contradictions: to his son, Andrejusja, “with hope and confidence”. Tarkovsky knew he was dying when he was making the film; perhaps it is best read as a message to his son, the culmination of a lifetime’s experiences, joys and sadnesses, with the wish that he would be always able to learn from it.