*. I want to begin by saying that I’m a huge fan of Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris and Stalker are among my all-time favourite films, though they’re both flawed masterpieces. The thing is, when Tarkovsky is “on” his flaws, which can be substantial, don’t matter. You’re left with the feeling that very few filmmakers are working at the same level.
*. Which brings us to The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s last film. It was made in Sweden and very much stands as a sort of homage to Bergman, with the main actor being Bergman veteran Erland Josephson and Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist behind the camera (though it wasn’t shot on Faro, as was apparently often reported). What this means, unfortunately, is that it’s a movie that has a lot to say about Man and God and Love and Death and the End of the World, and says it in a very ponderous way.
*. Look, Tarkovsky is a slow filmmaker. There’s a 45-minute parable here stretched to 142 minutes by way of lots of very long shots and exquisitely composed frames. That’s not the problem. Tarkovsky is also a spiritual guy, so there’s a lot of vague religiosity on display that I didn’t think added up to much. Words like “truth,” “ritual,” “sin,” and “sacrifice” are turned into leitmotifs. But that’s not the problem either.
*. The problem is that these two things are combined, without any great payoff at the end. Here’s Roger Ebert in what was a four-star (his highest rating) review: “The movie is not easy to watch, and it is long to sit through. Yet a certain joy shines through the difficulty. Tarkovsky has obviously cut loose from any thought of entertaining the audience and has determined, in his last testament, to say exactly what he wants, in exactly the style he wants. . . . The Sacrifice is not the sort of movie most people will choose to see, but those with the imagination to risk it may find it rewarding.” Wow. How enticing does that sound?
*. As things proceed we may well think that the presiding spirit is less Bergman than it is Ibsen or Strindberg. What year, nay what century is this? Surely the nineteenth! Is there running water in this house? But no, someone is seen driving a car. And there’s a JVC home stereo (in a wood housing) and television. And as we’re finally told in the film’s final act, the year is 1985. Which is about 100 years later than it looks to be. Or sounds like. It’s a movie that deals with anxiety over nuclear war, but don’t expect to hear Nena belting out “99 Luftbaloons.” This is Tarkovsky, and only Bach is going to do.
*. It also feels like nineteenth-century drama because the interiors all look like stage sets. I mean, there’s an acreage of (mostly empty) floor space not just in the main house but in Maria’s supposedly more downscale cottage. But then the exteriors seem no less staged, as they in fact were. That house, and that tree, planted out in the middle of nowhere are more an art installation than anything that’s part of nature.
*. Staging also informs nearly every shot of the film. This is taken to the point where you know how shots are going to end even as they’re being set up. I’ll give two examples, in one a group of figures walk toward an open doorway. There was a space to the left of the screen that was empty and when the last person entered the frame I said to myself “he has to walk over to the left to fill in that empty space and then stand there to complete the tableau.” And he did.
*. In the second, we see the main character, Alexander (Josephson) standing in front of a dresser with a full length mirror in the door. The door slowly opens, reflecting Alexander in the shot. Again, I said to myself “the shot has to end with the door stopping just at the point where Alexander is framed perfectly in the mirror.” And it did.
*. When your shots become this predictable I think there’s a problem. In a way it’s even worse than a script that you’re always two steps ahead of. It adds an extra level of impatience to one’s experience of a film that is already moving slow enough.
*. Reinforcing the slowness of the proceedings is the photography, which deliberately reduces the amount of colour throughout the central part of the movie. It’s almost like black and white (Nykvist says nearly 60% of the colour was removed). Now Tarkovsky is no stranger to this sort of experimenting with juxtaposing different levels of colour — it plays a big part in Stalker and is used dramatically at the end of Andrei Rublev — but here I had trouble getting the point. Is the middle section of the movie all a dream/nightmare? Maybe.
*. Much of what I’ve said here about the staginess of the compositions, the long takes, the fiddling with colour, and the Bach chorus, could be said of all of Tarkovsky’s work, including some of the best of it. What undercuts it all here is the vagueness of the message, and my sense that what I did understand of that message was something I didn’t like very much.
*. The parable, in outline, has it that a nuclear war is launched and Alexander gets down on his knees and prays that the world can go back to the way it was, and in return he’ll sacrifice everything he loves the most. Then a fellow who studies occult happenings tells Alexander that another good way to save the world might be to sleep with the maid Maria, who is sort of like a good witch. This Alexander does, and things do sort of go back to normal, but Alexander figures he has to keep his part of the bargain with God so he burns his house down.
*. I don’t know where to begin with this. First off, Alexander doesn’t give up all he loves and possesses by burning down his house. I was figuring he’d be sacrificing his son, who’s called Little Man but might as well be Isaac. Also, bargaining with God is a bad look and I don’t think makes for good theology. Then there’s the stuff with Maria. It’s an even worse look for an old guy to figure he can only save the world by sleeping with a woman half his age, and who even uses emotional blackmail (putting a gun literally to his head) to get her to go along. Not even another levitating bout of lovemaking can make this right.
*. In fact, I didn’t like Alexander-as-Christ at all. He’s a combination of the intellectual vice of preferring talk to action wed with the old-person vice of fearing change and wanting everything to magically go back to the way it was before (a golden age, pre-technological, pre-nuclear weapons, when he could still get it up). I didn’t find anything tragic about his ending at all, and didn’t even think the ambulance (which miraculously appears out of nowhere) should have bothered with him. He doesn’t need therapy so much as he needs to be taken to the woodshed.
*. The house burning down is a great image. But then so is Holly Hunter playing a piano on the beach in The Piano, but just as in that case a great image does not a great movie make. Tarkovsky doesn’t have any kind of point here. When he’s at his best, you can feel what he’s saying in a deep way. But I didn’t feel much of anything in The Sacrifice except a sense of frustration and grumpiness with the world. I couldn’t help thinking that Tarkovsky would have been as happy seeing the world burn as watching that house go up in flames. As for the next generation, they can pray to a dead tree. Just keep the faith.