Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay by: Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Allan Edwall, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter
Country: Sweden, UK, France
Running Time: 142 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
I’ve finally made it to the end of my Tarkovsky marathon (view all of my reviews here). I won’t say it was easy. Most of his films are rather long, slow moving and packed with philosophical ideas which largely went over my head. However, I have been consistently blown away by his talents as a director. He took command over some spectacular sequences which will be forever seared in my memory. None of the six films included in the marathon quite matched Andrei Rublev (which I’d seen previously, so didn’t request a screener to review) as my favourite Tarkovsky film. Ivan’s Childhood came close though and I thought highly of all of the films, even if a couple were tougher to get through than others.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I still haven’t given my thoughts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice (a.k.a. Offret or Sacrifice). It sees the elderly Alexander (Erland Josephson) spending time in his remote beach home with his young son, older daughter, wife, two friends and two maids. The group of them debate and bicker about various things until some shocking news is announced on the TV. Several warheads have been aimed towards Europe and the end of life on the planet (or possibly just Europe, it’s not clear) is inevitable. Alexander, his friends and family are all shocked and devastated of course, but it seems there might be one chance to save humanity and it’s in Alexander’s hands.
It took me a little while to get into The Sacrifice. The first 50 minutes or so, before the end of the world is announced, dragged for me, as they’re largely made up of long, rambling, philosophical musings and not much else. Even Alexander himself gets tired of them, stating in one scene that he’s fed up of these talks and wants to actually do something instead. This at least shows that Tarkovsky is aware of the common perception people have of his films. Much of the film seems autobiographical in fact, with Alexander feeling like a stand-in for Tarkovsky as he waxes lyrical about the creation of art and many of the themes examined in his other films. The fact that the director died of lung cancer shortly after the film was released casts a dark shadow too, due to the fact that the film is all about the end of the world. Supposedly he didn’t know he was dying during production though.
However, after the difficult first third, I found myself more drawn to the film. The scene where the news of the apocalypse is delivered is immensely powerful, feeling very believable despite much of the film being quite surreal. The cracking voice of the news presenter and the silently devastated expressions of those listening is hard to watch. I found the following scenes where they try to come to terms with the news morbidly fascinating too. The last third of the film, when Alexander is told how he could bring peace and brings it into action, is quite bizarre but surreally poetic. It all culminates in a spectacular finale which recalls a visual from Mirror.
As is to be expected from the director, the film is stunningly beautiful. The film is largely made up of very long takes which have been meticulously blocked out, having both the camera and actors fluidly move in, out, across and through each setup. There’s a mix of black and white and colour again, with the former used in some dream sequences, some showing the urban devastation caused by the war. The natural elements are utilised very effectively too, with mist, fire and water put to good use.
Overall it’s a most unusual film, which was rather patience testing at times, but emotionally powerful – more so than most of Tarkovsky’s later films. The mid-section is incredibly bleak, but hope seeps through in the surreal final acts. I couldn’t always get my head around the film, as with several of the titles I’ve tackled during this marathon, but it’s incredibly beautiful and masterfully controlled as always. I know a lot of people are put off by the sound of Tarkovsky’s films, but I would advise any lover of film to give them a chance. They may not be easily digestible and watching so many over a relatively short space of time has been tough, but there has been so much to admire in Tarkovsky’s work that I’m glad I took on the challenge.
The Sacrifice is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Curzon Artificial Eye. I saw the DVD version and the picture quality is a bit disappointing. There is little detail in the textures and there appears to be a bit of edge-enhancement. Darker scenes struggle too. Audio seemed fine though.
As before, the DVD I saw is bare-bones, but the Blu-Ray contains the following features:
– Commentary by Layla Alexander-Garrett
– Mary Wild Introduction
– Film Psychoanalyst Mary Wild visual essay
– Poetic Harmony
– 36 page booklet