Andrei Tarkovsky was dying as he made his final film, The Sacrifice (1986). It can be likened to the epic last testaments of Ludwig van Beethoven, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Luigi Nono, John Huston, and David Bowie. Tarkovsky dedicated the film to his son, Andrejusja, “with hope and confidence.” Like Mahler, Tarkovsky exits in a universal communication: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Despite the milieu of finality that permeates The Sacrifice, it was a narrative that had long been percolating with Tarkovsky, who referred to it as a parable, open to multifarious interpretations. It should be noted it wasn’t intended as a coda, as he was planning a film version of “The Flying Dutchman.” The Sacrifice literally owes itself to Ingmar Bergman, whose company financed it. Aesthetically, Tarkovsky also dips into Bergman’s landscape, shooting on the island of Faro, where the Swede—possibly Tarkovsky’s only peer—lived and shot several films.
The Sacrifice stars Erland Josephson (from Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and Fanny and Alexander) as Alexander. It is a kind of extension of his role of the self-immolating Domenico in Tarkovsky’s previous film, Nostalghia. Dreaming of a birthday apocalypse, Alexander, the aged atheist professor, offers himself up to God as The Sacrifice so that his family be will spared. The film ends in another form of madness and immolation, the burning of Alexander’s house. Unfortunately, the first take was ruined, necessitating a costly rebuilding of the house and a second shoot.
Despite such dark themes and the tumor that was killing him, Tarkovsky’s wit is in full force. It is a testament to the filmmaker’s spirit and, yes, his defiance remains wet. He dares to bravely state his spiritual beliefs in a spiritually bankrupt, materialistic era. Penance in isolation and self-martyrdom are prevailing themes; and, despite the inherent humor, it is a magnificently difficult viewing, as Tarkovsky intended.
It’s doubtful that much of the contemporary movie audience, spoon-fed on the fallacy that film is merely entertainment, will mantle the patience required here, but that is a considerable loss of the rich rewards offered. The Sacrifice revels in its quaint magical mysticism, amiably weaving Tarkovsky’s personal Catholicism with a Kierkegaardian existentialism.
This is not an apocalypse born of mushroom clouds and bomb shelters, but rather of a small family on a Swedish island replete with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Leonardo’s unfinished “Adoration of the Magi,” and Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” along with a host of irregulars including an unfaithful wife, the pompous doctor she’s carrying on with, a daughter, a son (referred to as “Little Man”), an amusing necromantic bicycling mailman named Otto who loves his ghost stories, and a maid as sexual sacrifice for an Icelandic pagan fertility cult (echoing Andrei Rublev).
The dialogue is sparse and the camera work (by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cinematographer for The Magic Flute, Autumn Sonata, and Fanny and Alexander, among others) glides ponderously and memorably across the island terrain in stunning tracking shots; among the most memorable is the tree planting scene. At times, the film is almost inert and undeniably austere (the burning of that gorgeous house lasts almost seven minutes). Aptly, it’s one of the most challenging and poignant of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre; a private annihilation.