Andrei Tarkovsky: The Sacrifice (1986) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Andrei Tarkovsky: The Sacrifice (1986)

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"Этот фильм посвящается моему сыну Andriosha с надеждой и уверенностью."

An aging critic (Erland Josephson) tries to find meaning through release and destruction in Andrei Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice.

LonelyAndrewCommentaryBannerI have the same problem with The Sacrifice that I did with Nostalghia last week.  Both are works that bear the signs of Tarkovsky's advancing age and disease, with characters obsessed with answers and their looming end.  They're also packed with reflection, dialogue that deals with stories and parable of their past and the fictions that mattered most to them.  In The Sacrifice the importance of fiction bleeds into the setting as Tarkovsky films on the island home of Ingmar Bergman, and makes use of Bergman's long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

Even with those details this film is unquestionably a Tarkvosky project.  Never have his characters seemed so lost than the way they do on this island.  He films almost all the outdoor scenes in an extreme long-shot, letting us take in the nearly inconsequential way their presence on the island affect its landscape.  Even inside, Tarkovsky's lens flattens the inhabitants, making them seem gaunt and unsubstantial, like at any time they could float away.

The moments when The Sacrifice threatens to take blow these gaunt figures away that the film becomes vital.  It's during the dream sequences, when Alexander stumbles around the giant house, and finds that the way forward is never as easy as it seems.  One stunning shot shows Alexander approaching a hallway that leads outdoors with lush vegetation, only to have Alexander's shadow suddenly envelop the view as we see that it is merely a tapestry that leads to more darkness.  Another unexpected road block that gave me a quick chill is when Alexander is having a nightmare and when he tries to find shelter finds that the only door to safety has been blocked off by brick.

These are images that scream of spiritual anguish, of a beautiful path forward that is forever an illusion.  But as great as these scenes are, I still found the film a bit lacking because Tarkovsky lets the Bergman overwhelm the fabric of the film.  This doesn't necessarily make it a failure, and there are still those powerful moments, but I caught myself more playing "Catch the Bergman reference" than anything else.  The newscast warning of apocalypse could have been dropped into Shame, the tree that they plant and return to from the beginning seemed lifted from The Virgin Spring, and there are the many painful reflections that would have been at home in Cries and Whispers.

I hesitate to say any of this is bad, but I was expecting a Tarkovsky film to close out his career, not a Bergman film in contemplative long shot.  Erland Josephson is a splendid actor, and made for a nervy presence in Nostalghia, but here he felt like he was trying to channel the intense introspection of Max von Sydow.  It's a film of masters pretending to someone else's work, and the cumulative effect is a bit off-putting.  At the same time, for someone as unyieldingly positive in his spirituality as Tarkovsky was, it also seems fitting that he would do a film that closes out his life that pays tribute to the one who inspired him the most.

That's it for his feature films Kyle, and next week is a documentary.  How did you feel this film closed out his life?No reflectionKyle Commentary BannerThe most surprising part is that, as you said, the moments of the strongest Bergman influence are what bring the film down. I didn't mind the references themselves so much, but here Tarkovsky (already one for lengthy takes and slow, drawn out speeches) has some moments early on that strain against our patience seemingly for no other reason than to be able to include a contemplative moment of Bergmanian philosophy. In theory this should be interesting—both directors have a penchant for existential musings, but where Tarkovsky's characters typically manage some hope in the face of exhaustion and fear, Bergman's universe can be much bleaker. Combining this mute resignation with Tarkovsky's need for some kind of transcendence plays out much better in the later scenes, where images and actions can stand in for some of the first quarter's drawn out monologues.

By the time the newscast revealing the impending war came on, it hit me like a brick, but part of that was also due to the fact that I had been lulled into boredom by what seemed like were going to be a series of endless speeches on life. In his other films, Tarkovsky has woven these into the story more carefully—here he tries out Bergman's straightforward approach, but the whole time it seems like he really wants to be saying what the characters are saying visually.

Once we get to the parts you mention—the dreams, the slow crawl through a doorframe from one dark room to another, the dread-ridden floating witch sex (or whatever is going on there)—the film picks up and starts to really get into Alexander's mindset, which is where Tarkovsky wants us all along. One thing I especially love in that regard is how he stages two key sequences that mirror each other toward the end of the film.

Alexander sneaks out of the house to find an abandoned building down by the water where he will plead with a woman he believes to be in control of instigating the coming war. As he leaves the house and sneaks down to hide behind a shed, we see the house in the background, his family and friends sitting around a table and standing in the yard. The frame is dark and overcast, they don't talk to each other, and their faces are grim and defeated. Following this journey, Alexander wakes up at home and, determined to follow through with his pledge of sacrifice to avoid the war, concocts a plan to get everyone else out of the house. As he waits for them to leave, he sneaks out and hides behind the same shed, and we get a mirror of the earlier shot—this time with the sun shining, his friends moving around and talking.

Even in this shot things aren't ideal—there is some fighting and arguing—but it's impossible for us not to view this new version of the world as infinitely better than the one we've been in for the past 2 hours. That Alexander still has to follow through with his plan, tainting the former to avoid the latter, makes Tarkovsky's point about his state of mind and devotion better than any long monologue could.Road to nowhere

Question time!

Tiny Andrew CommentaryEven with all the positive things I have to say about The Sacrifice, I was still disappointed that the movie felt like Bergman fan fiction at times.  Even at the bitter end, Tarkovsky was still a master, and there were those moments in The Sacrifice that will stay with me forever.  But the disappointment stays.  So, has there ever been a film that you've been anticipating that ended up being a disappointment - not to the point of dislike, but that brought you to the edge of a melancholy over what could have been?

It's fitting that I reviewed a M. Night Shyamalan film earlier this week because he provides the perfect answer to this question.  I absolutely loved his first three successful films, and left Signs thinking that he was going to keep creating these unique thrillers for years.  Then there was The Village, a film that seemed dead-set to making sure that the audience had absolutely no lingering questions about the plot.  Each scene went from an interesting exploration of this weird little environment to providing way too many answers about what was going on.  Sadly, he imploded since, but there was so much that was right about The Village that it could have been an unusual success instead of the bizarre disappointment it was.True loveTiny Kyle CommentaryThe one coming to mind at the moment—and this may just be because the postal worker reminded me of Gary Oldman—is The Dark Knight Rises, a movie that demonstrates incredible technical prowess and a mastery of form without the slightest inkling of coherent storytelling ability. I'm still convinced that years down the line it will be revealed that Nolan was blackmailed by a high-level studio chief into letting the man's 13-year-old son ghost-direct the movie.

As far as one that fits more into the disappointment-but-not-outright-dislike category, probably the original theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven. Ridley Scott has some of the worst luck as a major director who studios refuse to trust for bizarre reasons, and his un-butchered director's cut of the film is one of the best of its kind, but the original truncated release takes a lot of the nuance out of a film that at its heart has some delicate emotional and political developments that need time to unwind across several hours, instead leaving us with a technically proficient but confusing and often random-seeming action movie. I had a weird nagging feeling when I first saw it and was unimpressed, and once I sat down with the director's cut a year later, everything (literally) made way more sense.

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Tarkovsky with text

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