The Sacrifice is Andrei Tarkovsky’s final, visually intoxicating and profoundly spiritual masterpiece about the end of the world. The film’s initial image sets the tone for Tarkovsky’s deeply personal statement on humanity’s self-destruction. There is a close-up of a painting depicting an offering (to the haunting, threnodic oratorio of Johann Sebastian Bach). The camera then pans upward to show the people in the painting, then another sectional shift, and the camera focuses on a tree above them. We first see the long shot of a pensive Alexander (Erland Josephson), a wealthy, retired stage actor, planting a tree with his son. His family has gathered at his remote, isolated house on the countryside to be with him on his birthday. In true Tarkovsky subtle narrative style, during dinner preparations, the glasses clink, the room shakes, then the sound of a concussive wave is heard. Is it an earthquake? We find out from fragments of news broadcasts that World War III has begun. In a desperate attempt to save his family, he decides to offer himself as a sacrifice – to relinquish all of his worldly possessions and part with his loved ones if they can be spared from the horror. But how does one make such a covenant? He prays to God, he pleads with a housemaid whom he suspects is a witch, he suffers in silence. He appears melancholy, despondent, even delusional. The beauty of Alexander’s sacrifice is that no one realizes what he is trying to do (and the lengths that he will go to) in order to save his family… a true sacrifice. The Sacrifice is a devastating, but powerfully reaffirming film on love, humanity, and faith.
The long, singular shots and deliberately paced story are compelling signature techniques used by Tarkovsky. Note the distance of the subjects in most of the film: from the opening dialogue between Otto and Alexander to the turmoil of the final scene. Tarkovsky shows humanity in proper respect to the environment. Indeed, how narcissistic we are, as a society, to create films where character close-ups are frivolously used for no other reason than to show how attractive an actor is. We are drawn into Tarkovsky’s world, not by blatant, instinctual eye candy (not that Mr. Josephson is unphotogenic), but by the pathos and subtle beauty of the visual imagery. By placing the subjects in such a perspective, the effect is captivating, narrative, honest, and above all, contemplative. Tarkovsky uses muted, washed colors in the country house scenes, suffused with gray tones depicting the apocalyptic destruction of war. Note the pale color of the woods where Alexander takes his son for a walk. The anemic landscape illustrates Tarkovsky’s (like Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski) masterful use of color as a symbolic medium. It conveys the idea that nature, and humanity itself, is “sick”: from the devastating effects of war and nuclear proliferation, and from humanity’s indifference and loss of spirituality. It is a heartfelt statement from a thoughtful artist facing imminent mortality, with a profound wisdom to share.
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