Media Notebook: Reissued ‘Sacrifice’ shows response to sin, fear, despair amid crisis

By John P. McCarthy

Catholic News Service

A remastered edition of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s final movie, “The Sacrifice,” has arrived on DVD from Kino International, a quarter-century after its theatrical release.

Tarkovsky defected from the Soviet Union two years before making the Swedish-language film, which was shot by one of Ingmar Bergman’s great collaborators, cinematographer Sven Nykvist. During the editing process, Tarkovsky was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died within a year at age 54.

It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting swan song. A deeply personal yet universal work, both elegiac and forward-looking, “The Sacrifice” depicts a faith journey and, specifically, an intellectual’s response to sin, fear and despair.

Emblematic of Tarkovsky’s small but significant oeuvre, the parable also evokes Shakespeare, Chekhov and Bergman. In fact, on first encountering its slow, ritualistic pacing, you’re tempted to dismiss it as a parody of one of Bergman’s bleaker films.

Gradually, however, its tight structure and incisive hopefulness emerge. “The Sacrifice” has humor and heft, tension and tenderness. Farcical moments depressurize the atmosphere of existential terror while keeping self-seriousness and pretension at bay.

A sympathetic protagonist, subtly played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson, is essential to the drama’s success.

On a Baltic island, a handful of people gather for the birthday of Alexander, a former actor turned philosophy professor, critic and journalist. During the remarkable 10-minute-long take that opens the movie, he plants a tree with his young son, nicknamed “Little Man” (Tommy Kjellqvist), and then trades philosophical banter with Otto (Allan Edwall) the postman.

Alexander is preoccupied with the lack of spirituality in contemporary society. “We can’t even pray,” he will observe later while admiring a book of religious icons — a gift from his physician friend Victor (Sven Wollter), who also happens to be his wife’s lover. The ethical barrenness Alexander discerns exists on many levels.

At his seaside home, the birthday celebration commences with Otto and Victor joining Alexander, his wife, Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), their daughter and two servants. Out of nowhere, as it were, fighter jets are heard roaring across the sky, and authorities announce the outbreak of World War III. Apparently, civilization — indeed all life on earth — awaits nuclear annihilation.

The impending apocalypse triggers varied reactions, including guilt and hysteria in Adelaide. Although filled with trepidation, Alexander views the crisis as an opportunity to give his life real meaning. He begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer and offers himself up to God, beseeching the Deity to save his friends and family — and their imperfect world.

Separately, Otto suggests disaster can be averted if Alexander visits Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir), a domestic in Alexander’s employ whose mystical aura was remarked upon earlier in the evening. No plot recitation can do justice to what transpires. Suffice it to say, Alexander’s offer is accepted; his prayer is answered. But the price he must pay is nothing less than his sanity.

Tarkovsky’s poetic style — here encompassing Christian and pagan imagery, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting “The Adoration of the Magi,” biblical quotations, and references to Nietzsche — prompts numerous questions:

Is Alexander a saint, a madman, or a little of both? Could the entire narrative be a dream? Most importantly, why does it take an apocalypse to awaken Alexander’s dormant belief? Are dread and misery all that drive us toward God?

Making theological sense of every aspect of “The Sacrifice” is probably impossible.

Yet any interpretation must begin with Alexander’s sincerity. He’s beloved — a good man with a formidable mind and a kind heart. Through him, Tarkovsky plumbs the irrational side of faith.

Alexander’s passage consists of moving from the reflexively cerebral toward a physical, outward-looking act of belief. The human need for order, routine and systematic explanation is not enough. He yearns for the beautiful uncertainty of faith, which requires complete commitment and self-giving.

While fulfilling and blessed in many respects, Alexander’s life up to this point has been consumed with — to quote “Hamlet” as Tarkovsky does — “Words, words, words.” He’s had no overarching purpose other than his bond with “Little Man.”

The war forces him to confront the one existential truth he’s been avoiding. It compels him to deepen his relationship with God, and submit to what he reckons is God’s will.

His decision leads to a certain amount of destruction, as portrayed in the movie’s climactic scene, another long, mesmerizing take featuring a conflagration and Alexander’s withdrawal from society. But it’s important to note that “The Sacrifice” ends positively, with inklings of a rebirth through the tree that Alexander and “Little Man” planted at the outset.

In the first end-title card, moreover, Tarkovsky dedicates the film to his son “with hope and confidence.”

The new Kino DVD set, released July 5, also contains “Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky”, a documentary by Michal Leszczylowski, who helped edit “The Sacrifice.” In it, Tarkovsky states, “The purpose of art is to help man improve himself spiritually.”

Although elusive from a doctrinal standpoint, “The Sacrifice” dramatizes one man’s attempt at such spiritual progress. By doing so with grace and power, it successfully fulfills the purpose of art as Tarkovsky understood it.

Due to its subject matter, a scene implying nonmarital relations, and fleeting female nudity, “The Sacrifice” is likely best for adult viewers, but some parents may consider it acceptable for mature adolescents as well.

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McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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