The Sacrifice, the final film from Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, has many connections to the work of Ingmar Bergman, but perhaps first and foremost is the picture’s preoccupation with death.
Set and filmed near Bergman’s island home in Sweden, the movie takes place on a flat expanse that melts into the water as if we were at the end of the world. Standing resolute against the flatness is an elaborate home belonging to Alexander (Bergman veteran Erland Josephson), a former actor and now essayist and lecturer who has gathered with a few family members and friends for his birthday. That small marker of death’s approach is soon interrupted by a larger one, when thundering warplanes heard above signal the advent of World War III.
Though Tarkovsky is an apocalyptic filmmaker (Stalker), he’s not a bombastic one. And so apocalypse here is envisioned in the rumble of jets that knock a placid jug of milk off a shelf, or a flickering telecast calling for “order amidst this chaos.” Occasionally we get brief, black-and-white sequences of a street scene in rubble, but even here the effect is painterly (courtesy of regular Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist): the camera pans slowly down the street from above, seemingly less interested in the fleeing people in the frame than in the trickling rivulets of water running along the gutters.
And so, even though it invokes what would have been timely fears of a nuclear holocaust, The Sacrifice is mostly concerned with the daily reality of death that we all face, as well as the interior ways we deal with it. Winding down his career, Alexander no longer believes in the immortality of his pontificating ways. The opening scene – a gorgeous long take in which Alexander and his young son (Tommy Kjellqvist) prop up a dead tree at the water’s edge – consists mostly of Alexander waxing philosophical. The joke? The boy is not only little, but mute – the ultimate captive audience. Eventually they’re joined by their comically ponderous postman, Otto (Allan Edwall), yet his banter verges on the nonsensical. Eventually Alexander sighs and says, “Why do I talk this way?”
Though Tarkovsky is an apocalyptic filmmaker, he’s not a bombastic one.
As the movie goes on, Alexander talks less and less. Indeed, once the news of war has broken out and hope appears to be lost, a nightmarish spell breaks over the household. The others – Alexander’s wife (Susan Fleetwood), daughter (Filippa Franzén), doctor friend (Sven Wollter) and servants – stand in the elaborately staged rooms of the home almost frozen, posed like zombie mannequins. They debate whether or not to wake the boy – whom they call Little Man – but otherwise appear numb, regretful and helpless.
Eventually Alexander breaks down and offers a pleading prayer to God (never mind that in the opening scene he declared that his relationship with God was “nonexistent”). Alexander declares he will give up all that he has – his family, his home, even the sound of his voice, which he once so loved – if war could be averted. Then, for good measure and on Otto’s suggestion, Alexander also visits a woman considered to be a witch, presumably to make a backup deal with the devil.
I won’t reveal much more, except to say that the movie’s astonishing final act involves Alexander’s maniacal, fiery attempt to keep up his end of the bargain(s). There is a sequence here – another long, single take, filmed from a distance as a structure goes up in flames – that’s as gripping a depiction of agony as I’ve seen. Tarkovsky’s measured pacing reveals an insidious side effect: The Sacrifice at times uncomfortably captures the drawn-out reality of pain.
Yet Tarkovsky is too metaphysical of a filmmaker to leave us here, and so The Sacrifice offers an epilogue back at that barren tree by the sea. At the start of the film, over the opening credits, Tarkovsky links this tree with the one in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi. Here, he closes the film with a reference to John 1. Like much of the filmmaker’s work (not to mention Bergman’s), The Sacrifice is haunted by the gap between human yearning and ultimate understanding, between the way things are and the way we long for them to be.