Release date: May 9th, 1986
Running time: 124 minutes
Country of origin: Sweden and France
Original language: Swedish, French and English with English subtitles
Writer and director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Valérie Mairesse, Allan Edwall,
Sometimes there’ve been things I wanted so badly that in a desperate last attempt – when everything else has failed – I found myself making empty promises to God. “Please, if I get these concert tickets I’ll to go to church every Sunday” or “If you get me out of this, I’ll never ask for anything again”. How many of us have made such promises? I guess the answer would be a lot, but what if the survival of the whole world hung on a promise? Would we go head and fulfil our end of it? Or would we chalk it up to coincidence and forget all about it the next day?
Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, made while the director was gravely ill with lung cancer, is the startling tale of a man who bargains with God and then goes about fulfilling his promise.
Alexander (Erland Josephson) is in his later years, he’s a journalist and former actor and something of a philosopher and he has a good life. His wife is a young actress, his daughter is a teenager and he has a six-year-old son whom they all refer to as “Little Man”. Alexander is extremely attached to Little Man who doesn’t speak due to some recent surgery. They walk together and he talks fluidly about his ideas, hopes and dreams while Little Man entertains himself.
Later in the evening they hear on the news that the inevitable is about to happen; the world will end by a nuclear holocaust. While low-flying jets signal the start of the war, the women become hysterical and have to be sedated. Alexander is distraught in his own way and after being told that he can save the world, he sets about making a deal with God. He promises he will give up everything he loves; his family, his home and even Little Man if God will prevent this war from happening. The next morning, all is fine with the world…
From its opening scenes, The Sacrifice is unmistakably Tarkovsky. It begins with a ten-minute long dolly shot that never breaks as Alexander discusses Nietzsche with a friend and Little Man occupies the time by tying a rope from the man’s bicycle to a tree, waiting for him to ride off. Alexander says to the man, “Words, words, words! If only we could shut up and do something” and this is what the film hangs on; the idea that he will ultimately have to do something and not just talk about doing it.
While it could be interpreted that it was all a dream or that Alexander has gone insane, it can also be said The Sacrifice is Tarkovsky’s final wish for mankind to retreat from its self-destructive course and rediscover our spiritual side. We glimpse a reproduction of Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi, which in itself symbolises the act of sacrifice and there are also pagan elements present in the film, this is evident when Alexander visits a woman who is known to be a witch.
Whatever conclusions we may wish to draw from The Sacrifice, there’s no denying that it’s a remarkable piece of work and fitting for a final chapter in the director’s impressive collection of work.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
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