Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Sacrifice

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE SACRIFICE

8/10

Offret / Sacrificato : Swe/Fr 1986 : Andrei Tarkovsky : 149 mins

Tarkovskys last film, but by no means intended as the last testament its now become – he planned to mount a production of The Flying Dutchman in London in 1986, only for death to intervene. But The Sacrifice does operate under the rapidly encroaching shadow of death, and also under the more benevolent shadow of Ingmar Bergman – most of the cast and crew, including cinematographer Sven Nykvist, are borrowed from the Swedish master. So, we have a gloomy, long film about the End of the World – or perhaps we dont…

Sixtyish philosopher Alexander (Erland Josephson) lives in a beautiful house on an island off Swedens Baltic coast, with English wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), teenage daughter Julia (Valerie Maitesse) and young son, known only as Gossen, or Little Man (Tommy Kjellvqist). Its Alexanders birthday, and he’s visited by eccentric bicycling postman Otto (Allan Erdawll) and smug doctor Viktor (Sven Wollter), who is carrying on with Adelaide. Out of the blue, a nuclear war is announced on TV – the telephones and electricity are cut off, and the air is filled with the deafening roar of passing jets. All looks bleak – but then Alexander fervently prays, asking God to avert the impending apocalypse, in return offering to turn his back on his home and family, and take a vow of silence. Next morning, he wakes to find that, somehow, the threat of annihilation has been lifted – and now its up to him to keep his side of the bargain…

The Sacrifice is like a compendium of all the ideas (faith, role of artist, power of nature, virtue of childhood) and images (love as levitation, a boy standing by a tree) from his previous six films. As usual, there’s a baffling rush of philosophical debate, stitched together with some of the most astonishing shots in all cinema. Watching this long film is an intermittently dazzling experience, but also somewhat unsatisfying. Just how much of what were watching is real, and how much is Alexanders hallucination – were given clues along the way, such a bicycle being parked in a certain way, only to reappear in a slightly different place later on – is open to question. In Tarkovskys films, dreams are nothing if not cinematic. But piecing together the directors intention seems to be missing the point.

Worrying about the narrative of The Sacrifice, or indeed any of this directors films, is a waste of time. Here, he creates a remarkable sense of atmosphere – this must be one of the dampest of all movies, played out to the constant steady rumble of some unseen, distant foghorn, and many of the painterly compositions recall the dazzlingly sparse Baltic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. Indoors, Tarkovsky subtly manipulates light among darkness, his characters walking around on a polished dark-wood floor in such a remarkable house it seems sinful to burn it down, as Alexander does at the end of the film.

Tarkovskys rigorous control of image produces some astonishing tracking shots, moving back and forth across the the island terrain, while his equally assiduous control of sound mingles far-off wailings, Japanese woodwinds, Swedish folk tunes. This attention to sonic detail makes the performance of Susan Fleetwood – brother of Fleetwood Macs Mick – all the more baffling. Shes clearly speaking English all the way through, but most of her lines are dubbed into Swedish. Except for a brief period when, hearing of the War, she succumbs to tedious hysterics – she then speaks in clear English, screaming her concerns about the fate of Little Man.

This Little Man is perhaps the most unsatisfactory element of the whole film. At the start, he’s just had a throat operation and cannot speak. He helps his father plant a dead old tree among some rocks, re-enacting a parable in which an oft-watered lump of wood eventually blossomed – and at the end Little Man is shown doing just that, now having regained the power of speech. The film ends with Tarkovskys dedication to his own son – with hope and confidence – but this seems manipulatively banal in the light of what he’s shown us in the preceding two-hours-plus. But, despite these qualifications, The Sacrifice could never have been made by anybody else – this is Tarkovskys world, and many viewers will choose not to enter. Itt their loss.

31st January, 2001

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by Neil Young
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