The Sacrifice
aka Offret
First screened in December 2001; reviewed in July 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky. Cast: Erland Josephson, Allan Edwall, Susan Fleetwood, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter, Filippa Franzén, Tommy Kjellqvist, Valérie Mairesse. Screenplay: Andrei Tarkovsky.
Twitter Capsule: Triumph of lensing, earnestly apocalyptic, but scenario is dubious, acting very uneven

Photo © 1986 Svensk Filminstitutet/Orion Classics
The first thing to say about The Sacrifice is that the film is (surprise!) magnificently photographed by the legendary Sven Nykvist, who orchestrates a palette of blue, green, silver, and bone against which the ruddy woods of a domestic interior put up only the faintest fight. The value of the cinematography is not just that it is beautiful and appropriately austere, although it is certainly both of these things. Even outside his black and white films, director Andrei Tarkovsky has favored these kinds of restricted spectrums many times before, often to convey environments of fraught interiority (Nostalghia), profound metaphysical threat (Stalker), or cosmic melancholia (Solaris). Compared to those films, despite its lofty address to entire forms of life and fates of the world, The Sacrifice tells a story that asks to be understood in terms of a lived reality more or less shared with the audience. The upshot, though, is that the fragile, infected world of 1986, played more or less straight, albeit within very rarefied company and in isolated terrain, differs less than we might wish it did from the porous nightmares of Solaris or the irresolvable anxieties of The Zone in Stalker. Nykvist manages to film The Sacrifice with the psychological intimacy and dramatic eloquence of his milestone films with Ingmar Bergman but also with the stark, restricted colors, the varying exposures, and the sustained sequence shots that have so often served as Tarkovsky's avenues for approaching the theological and the poetic, questing after his own rueful, devout, disquieted sublime. The palette in The Sacrifice flatters the land, the grass, and the water while coldly bleaching the sky and coaxing a spiritual anemia out of the human inhabitants—and all without imposing that cruddy, one-bleakness-fits-all approach that so many cinematic visions of the ailing globe enforce upon every single frame. The sequence shots are as thrilling in stamina and technique as sequence shots usually are, but they have the important effect, too, of binding characters together into something none of them can get out of, something prodigious in conception that will nonetheless have to end, sooner or later.

So, that's the first thing. The second thing to say about The Sacrifice is that it's a little disappointing to feel compelled to start with "It's magnificently shot." The holy follies and the holistic vision of medieval Russia are transifixing in Andrei Rublev, as are the oceanic sadness of Solaris and the internal lament of the self-pitying exile in Nostalghia. Technique, obviously, has everything to do with these entrancing states, yet technique lures you into something that quickly takes on many lives of its own. These rank among some of the greatest films ever made, so the superhuman scale of comparison needs to be acknowledged, but unlike those other films, The Sacrifice feels powered more by rhetoric than genuine persuasion, engendering admiration more often than belief. At moments, it's outright histrionic. The expatriated Soviet has not just relocated the action to Sweden but has settled deep inside the fist of Nordic spiritual restlessness and Winter Light-style furors of the soul. Genius doesn't always mesh well with other forms of genius, and for all that the film continues to impress as an imposing spectacle, only achievable by master builders, a lot that is necessarily elliptical and image-driven in Tarkovsky sits ill at ease with everything that is high-pitched and gregarious in Ibsen, Strindberg, and Bergman.

As with the triumphs of the lensing, this mixing of dramatic idioms, uneven though it is, carries some thematic weight. The Sacrifice is patently interested in how well or how often the people of the world and specifically of Europe can still reach out to each other and respond to each other's cues, even to the extent of taking wild, uncertain leaps into structures of belief that feel totally foreign. Not just encouraged by Bergman's past successes with this theme but aided by Bergman's filming locations, funding supports, and coterie of collaborators, Tarkovsky seems to be practicing what he rather strenuously preaches. The household in The Sacrifice is like a little EU, such that it's not always easy to tell when the characters are meant to be foreign extractions and when they just happen to be rendered by a heteroglossic cast of actors. Bergman stalwart Erland Josephson plays the proud, anxious, aloof paterfamilias Alexander. He is husband to the high-strung, English-born, possibly unfaithful Adelaide, played with a wearying lack of subtlety by the English actress Susan Fleetwood, a noted interpreter of Strindberg on stage. Alexander and Adelaide are the parents to teenage, corkscrew-curled daughter Marta (Filippa Franzén) and to a tow-headed, improbably young son whom everyone calls Little Man (Tommy Kjellvist). They do this, I regret to report, with most of the bluntly Christic overtones you might guess. The family relies on two servants, the maid Julia (Valérie Mairesse), whom I took to be French, and the older, Icelandic, self-consciously enigmatic Maria. (Are you still thinking about the Nativity?) The latter role is played with as much terse, poignant discipline as possible by the actress Guðrún Gísladóttir, but the combination of the other characters' superstitious uneasiness around her, the camera's vigorous salesmanship of her eerie demeanor, and the ensuing plot developments all thrust her awkwardly into the realm of stereotype. Where is Andrei Rublev's frank, carnal, easygoing sympathy with its Russian pagans? Meanwhile, the Chekhovian local doctor, Victor (Sven Wollter), is a regular presence in the household, though he is a bit exhausted of Alexander's bloviations and of Adelaide's amorous attentions, so he has decided to relocate to Australia. Finally, cycling around, passing through, and frequently stirring things up is Otto (Allan Edwall), a local mailman, collector, gossip, and aspiring philosopher, whom different characters regard at different times as a confidant, a chum, a nuisance, and a plain fact of local life.

These are the faces and personas to which the depopulated world of The Sacrifice confines itself. They convene to celebrate Alexander's birthday in a way that already feels charged with discomfort and frustration. Then, however, the scream of overhead jets, the rumbling of the chinaware, and the aggravated dispatches from the living-room radio all imply that some kind of thermonuclear military incident has cast the region and possibly the whole world into a deep, sudden fight for its own life. The least generous thing to say about The Sacrifice is that it's the kind of movie where you know the planet is on the brink because this well-to-do family's jug of milk goes crashing to the floor, in spectacular slow motion. The most generous thing you could say is that the film renders emotion and group dynamics with enough sensitivity that you don't just feel the tenor of their moods and interactions changing after the announcement of the crisis, some of which is drawn so floridly that no one could miss it. More than that, you can look at the images and see the blood chilling beneath their skins. Everyone looks grief-stricken, but no one looks precisely surprised.

I couldn't help wishing the first time I saw The Sacrifice—nor again now that I'm returning a decade later—that Tarkovsky had focalized the film's scenario through someone different than Josephson's off-putting, self-romanticizing Alexander, variously described as a former journalist, a retired professor, an esteemed critic, and a successful actor who shouldn't have renounced that life for all the mandarin endeavors that followed. In Tarkovsky's previous film, Nostalghia, Josephson played the troubled mystic who publicly lights himself afire in protest of the world's venality, a character whose abrasive self-righteousness lent some contrapuntal human dimension to an event that might otherwise seem too abstract, too sanctimonious as a figure for the Grand Ethical Gesture. Here, Josephson flips to play a character who is faced with destruction and cannot do anything about it, or thinks for a while that he cannot. Still, our sense of Alexander feels too fickle and occasion-bound from scene to scene: he mourns the freedoms of practicing art, he wishes to impart well-marinated wisdom to his toddler, he loves old maps and loves conjecturing what the world used to be like, he's an oblivious fool and cuckold, he's a font of wise reflection, he's grown apart from his life, he wants desperately to save his life. Alexander fails to seem like more than a loose composite of the highfalutin figureheads that often get nailed to the prow of a huge, slow-sailing film like this. Tarkovsky, like Malick, seems so genuinely awed by the world that surrounds him, and by the worlds that surround that world, that one hates to see him spend so much time with such an itchy narcissist, one who never seems more wetly solipsistic than when he pretends to ponder grand-scale issues. Bergman could have made this kind of character work. He, at least, was as fascinated by psychology as by creativity and theology, whereas I suspect psychology runs a distant third for Tarkovsky if it even registers on his scale, no matter how much empathy he registers for his fellow travelers.

In fact, even if you don't know Tarkovsky was lying in what became his deathbed when The Sacrifice debuted, the film feels more accessible, more humane, and more poignant as a direct, final address from the filmmaker to his audience than when it's filtered through the dramatic interactions and heavy-weather soliloquies of Alexander and his brood. Loitering along the water's edge like Chris Kelvin in Solaris, subject to Mirror-like shards of bitter and plaintive memory, caressing printed reproductions of Rublev-style religious icons, The Sacrifice and its unlovable protagonist engage in fond farewells to Tarkovsky's own career and touchstone images. Somehow, though, the film nimbly avoids equating the end of the world with the end of its maker's life and career. Granted, the director does not demonstrate this same agility in pushing Adelaide to the edge of breakdown or in trying to generate an engaging philosophical tussle between Otto and Alexander, or between anyone else. Nonetheless, what you'd expect to be most unseemly and self-indulgent in The Sacrifice is actually quite moving. In conjunction with Nykvist's tender, tough, uncanny way of eulogizing the very objects he films—pitchers of water, tablecloths, floorboards, low and verdant floodplains—the air of heartbroken lament is gripping.

Narrative developments in The Sacrifice in some ways extend the early, inconsistent braid of transporting poignancy and logy self-seriousness. In other ways, though, the story progressively recasts the actors and surrounding elements into new relations, revealing their most fertile ironies the longer you ponder the film. Partly this is because Tarkovsky trusts us to unpack his film over time, and indeed seems to hope we will do so; partly it's because The Sacrifice seems seduced by some of the very ingredients I wish it had cast aside, yet reluctant about other layers and wrinkles that seem much more promising. I can't avoid spoilers here, and I don't imagine many folks would get this far into a review of The Sacrifice without having seen it, so: the highly dubious Otto advises Alexander that a single, occult hope exists for saving the world, which requires visiting the enigmatic Maria at her faraway home and making love to her. He has less than a day to do this, and afterward, he must permanently renounce all of his material possessions as well as the use of his own voice as an assurance to God that all of this means less to him than the survival of his family and his world.

Nobody viewing The Sacrifice should accept that Otto holds any real credibility, and certainly not about whether or not the vagina of the foreign-born Maria is a genuine conduit to cosmic pardon. Alexander takes up the errand anyway. While it would be awfully late in Tarkovsky's career for him to sprout a sense of humor, there are some furtive exits and small-talk prevarications that suggest farcical possibilities in this sequence of events. The Sacrifice can't or won't pursue these, and if you're already feeling alienated from The Sacrifice, you'll be hard-pressed to hold your tongue at the astonishing, chauvinist, and credulous solemnity with which it confronts Alexander's late-night assignation with Maria—such a transporting lay that the two bodies literally levitate from the mattress and rotate above it for a transcendent interval.

As a concept, and in many aspects of execution, this scene ranks somewhere between a howler, an affront, and a pinnacle of arrogant self-regard. Gísladóttir, bless her, is really invaluable here, even though she is restricted to several shots of being mystified at what her cold, detached employer is doing so far away and so late at night by inviting himself in, and then to a series of silent reactions as he builds to his proposal. Study the close-ups: is Maria persuaded to his plan? Does she pity him, and is it him, specifically, whom she pities or is it the inconsolable desperation of the world's final citizens, who only have a few hours to make their coarse, rudderless requests of comfort from each other? I was surprised Maria has so little sense of the impending doom Alexander describes; apparently, she didn't hear those shrieking jets or feel the tremors. Still, her reasons for acting as she does are worth contemplating, and fortuitously, Tarkovsky gives Josephson the best-written and best-directed of his several monologues smack in the middle of this sequence. It may originally have been written for some other purpose, since it's a memory speech with more connotative than direct relation to anything that's happening, but this homily about tending his father's garden draws something genuine, soft, and despondent out of Josephson's crusty performance; it makes you emotionally solicitous of Alexander, possibly for the first time. The bluntness of the Biblical associations aren't as hobbling as you'd think they would be, and even the grandiose spectacle of this gravity-defying liaison doesn't quite diminish the more essential nakedness that Alexander and Maria have disclosed to each other.

Alexander wakes in the morning, and that already is something. Maria barely figures into that morning-after sequence, and this seems, to put it politely, awfully curious. Having come this far in his mad plan, it is fairly clear how Alexander will be forced to proceed, and The Sacrifice recovers some of its muffled comic intelligence as he gingerly makes his way bach home, and then its implacably tragic trajectory as he gets down to his sad, quite possibly deluded business. Fires will be set, lips sealed, hopes dashed and stoked, depending on who you are and when we're looking. You end the movie with as little closure as you'd expect, but perhaps a hair's breadth more optimism, and you won't be shocked at whose company we keep in the final images. Is this boilerplate Christianity, in defiance of Tarkovsky's unique style and magisterial idiosyncrasies? Is this too-neat, even hokey storytelling, given the extravagance of both the crisis in The Sacrifice and its attempted resolution? Have we just completed a circle, or are we still winding down to a pianissimo finale for everything we've ever seen or felt? Or, for better and worse, is it just another day here on Earth?

Not all of the vagaries and overbearing vicissitudes of The Sacrifice can be easily recuperated. I think it oscillates too much between, on the one hand, furnishing us a sublimely illustrated parable that there is only one way to read and, more generously, extending us a deeper, richer riddle that admits a lot of possibilities. The one that resonates most for me, especially if you think about other sacrifices that God notoriously demands in the Bible, involves comparing even the tremendous scale of what Alexander relinquishes at the end of The Sacrifice—seeming to offer the world everything he has in exchange for its own life—with the notable limit Alexander places on what he won't destroy or renounce. In an earlier sequence of the movie, Alexander skulks into a bedroom, wracked to the point of virtual catatonia, and seems headed for Abraham-and-Isaac territory. One feels grateful to be spared watching this scene reach its presumptive conclusion. It's hard to deny, though, that for everything, everything, everything Alexander parts with in the interest of soul and survival, even amidst his mad, brave reckoning, he still draws a line against the most deeply forbidden acts. Is this in itself proof of his redemption, or is he in fact not going far enough in the service of a higher calling? What kind of God would demand more from Alexander? What kind of world would so merit saving, especially in the absence of any credible instruction, or any proof that our actions carry any meaning?

The Sacrifice is always visually potent, and the density and extremity of the allegory are humblingly vast by the end. For these reasons, without pretending to get engrossed in it in quite the way I do in Andrei Rublev and several other Tarkovsky films, I don't mind too much that in theme, story, and scale, the movie oscillates between compelling our thunderstruck confidence and testing our patience with unfulfilled promise and highbrow clichés. What scares Alexander, what redeems him, what finally strikes him as possible to abandon, and what does not all hew closely to "masterpiece" convention; the film requires a finesse and a fullness of insight that it does not always sustain. Still, in the long, epically extended, penultimate sequence—as flame-licked rafters start buckling, and the puddles in the grass reflect them as though the ground itself is shimmering with fire—it's hard to stand apart from what has sometimes been a strained or suspicious exercise. This is, to say the very least, a considerable film. As is true of Alexander's final gesture, it may or may not measure up perfectly to our desired standards for Tarkovsky's artistic epitaph. Yet as easy as it would be to overrate, The Sacrifice reveals layers and ironies that make me equally hesitant to under-think it. Simpler films at Cannes stood firmer on better-scaled foundations and managed to say at least as much, and sometimes more. Still, you can absolutely see why the world of cinema held its breath to see this, and you can only speculate the number of different thoughts that the movie has inspired over the years, humbled and trembling and perhaps curiously solaced. Grade: B+

VOR: (4)   (What is this?)
If it weren't for the middle stretch of The Sacrifice, when it does feel an awful lot like a familiar Scandinavian chamber piece, rendered with stock figurations and imperfect control, I wouldn't hold back from calling the movie "indispensable." It feels in many ways like a slam-dunk "5" on this VOR scale, and I hope I have implied why that is. But it's fourth or fifth in line among Tarkovsky films I'd implore people to watch, despite its reputation as one of the two or three most accessible, and less comfortable with itself than some of the high watermarks of film, theater, and literature against which it asks us to measure it. As a technical exercise, it's obviously tremendous, and maybe I'm being pedantic by withholding from saying that any serious film enthusiast should take a turn with The Sacrifice. Still, what's most moving about the piece isn't necessarily what's original about it (sometimes the opposite is true, to moving effect), and the sense of risk is unevenly distributed. The project is huge in formal conception and in thematic address, but shallower in character and in its oddly narrow approach to such a colossal premise. By that I mean, Why on Earth would this man's actions carry so much weight, even hypothetically, even as a pedagogical experience for the audience? Still, for all those reasons, even if The Sacrifice isn't one for the all-time books, you can easily see why it went down as the film of Cannes '86, and not only because of the advance interest. It would take a long time to exhaust it as a talking point, even if you'd start by setting aside a lot of what seems musty or unpersuasive.

Cannes Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize; Best Artistic Contribution (Nykvist); FIPRESCI Prize; Prize of the Ecumenical Jury
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Foreign Language Film

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