Tarkovsky strikes again. I finally got through his final movie, the Swedish language film The Sacrifice, the last work of his released in 1986 right before the filmmaker’s premature death.
Tarkovsky is someone who I consider to be one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and perhaps, of all time. His films resemble slow, majestic, mature poems. His characters represent themes. His settings represent character and emotion. The Sacrifice is the prime example of what a Tarkovsky film is like. It is a film about a man celebrating his birthday with his family when he discovers that World War III has erupted on that exact day. The man, played by Erland Josephson, used to be a poet, an actor and is now a journalist who in order to avert the apocalypse decides to give to God everything he values in life. Therefore he will make a sacrifice. His life, his family, his home. Everything will turn upside down.
The film is very slow paced. Hell, there are only around 100 shots in the whole movie compared to some action sequences nowadays that consist of 100 shots in a span of 4 minutes. Tarkovsky’s long slow tracking shots set the tone right from the start. One of my favorite opening scenes: the man stands by a Japanese tree, trying to support the plant and prevent it from being cut down by the merciless wind. A child joins him, his son. They tie the tree safely and begin to walk home. The man talks about history, poetry and soon is joined by an old friend. They continue to debate and quote great poets, mostly Shakespeare. The man recalls his acting days. Time has passed. The man knows it. Every truth, every secret about this man’s life we learn through carefully composed and staged shots. Sometimes they’re poetic, and sometimes they’re plain haunting. But that’s Tarkovsky for those who haven’t yet seen his work: the director creates visual peace and harmony in order to get through the incoming chaos and pain. His movies feel like tormented souls wrapped in beauty and serenity.
The Sacrfice is no exception. The movie feels like a tribute not only to Tarkovsky’s son (mentioned in the credits) but also to the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, someone whose movies always relied heavily on dialogue and wordplay and scene blocking. it is a loving tribute from one filmmaker to another. And yes, Tarkovsky does put a lot of words into this film, mainly long monologues and sudden bursts of dialogue when the family is involved. However, words are just words, for Tarkovsky imagery is the only thing that counts. It’s not even about symbolism. It’s about the movement, the colors, the sounds, the slow passing of time. Tarkovsky plays with the lighting, with the sound effects of water dripping and fire burning, with the patient montage of every scene. Nothing feels forced. Everything seems to flow naturally and that is the point The Sacrifice makes. There is peace in disaster, in death and in destruction we just have to decide which side we are on. Do we lose our mind just like the protagonist? Or do we fight through it like the boy?
Tarkovsky never gives answers to his audience. He lets it flow. Like water.