The Sacrifice

The Sacrifice

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Andrei Tarkovsky, the man before whose mastery of cinema even Ingmar Bergman bowed, was dying when he made The Sacrifice. Riddled with cancer, he knew he didn't have much time left, and he wanted to spend it making a film through which he could explain himself to his son. The film opens with a shot of an aging father and his young son planting a tree together. It could be years before it shows any sign of life, but they will tend it every day anyway, for the sake of that possible future. The man, Alexander, is already on the brink of discovering something about himself. But when the television announces an impending nuclear war, everything is thrown into stark relief. An avowed atheist, he finds himself turning nonetheless to God, offering a bargain which will change everything.

The Sacrifice is a slow film which won't be to everyone's tastes. It takes a long time to build up, but it's important that, before the change, we know Alexander and his family well, and understand the cultural world in which they live. Allusions to Hamlet and King Lear (and thus, later, to Kurosawa's Ran) help us to understand his relationship to them, as do the paintings scattered around the house and the strange stories told by the visiting postman.

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Even those who find this too slow will be dazzled by Tarkovsky's masterful imagery. His gently gliding camera expertly frames each shot and the use of light and of crisp natural sound is breathtaking. Even when the moment of crisis comes, he is not tempted to forsake his rhythm - the horror of the situation is all the more potent thanks to the absence of directorial histrionics. Everything is the same, but everything is about to end. The world seems just a little darker. In this way, Tarkovsky contemplates death.

Though it incorporates religious themes, this is not an overtly religious film - rather, it is spiritual, and is about its hero's discovery of a different side of himself - a side which can transcend the everyday world. Whether you see what follows as a religious act or as an act of madness doesn't really matter. Like Lear, Alexander is purified by his willingness to forsake material things - and so, he hopes, the world can be purified with him, offering a renewed future to his son.

It's a bold poetic statement and a difficult one to capture in film, but Tarkovsky was always capable of going beyond what other film-makers could achieve. Whilst this is not his greatest work, it is perhaps his most poignant, and it will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Reviewed on: 06 Dec 2007
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Faced with the destruction of everything he loves, a father offers himself to God as a sacrifice in its stead.
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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writer: Andrei Tarkovsky

Starring: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Tommy Kjellqvist, Allan Edwall, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter

Year: 1986

Runtime: 149 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Sweden, UK, France

Festivals:

New York 2017

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If you like this, try:

The Banishment