The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986) – BlogalongaRusskie #7
So that’s it: the culmination of a seven-month quest to see every feature film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, all but one of them for the first time. Along the way I’ve been moved, amazed, astounded and bored in roughly equal measure; I’ve seen at least two films, Andrei Rublev and Stalker, I’d rate amongst the best I’ve ever seen, but several that were – if I’m honest – something of a slog. Still, there’s nobody quite like him, and I feel a little wiser for the effort. I just have to decide which master of cinema to tackle next!
(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)
The end of Tarkovsky… but not, quite, the end of the world. The director bores, then beguiles, with a film of typical audacity
Andrei Tarkovsky never hid his adoration of Ingmar Bergman, so it’s not entirely a surprise that – after being exiled from his Russian homeland – he’d eventually rock up in Sweden, making a film on a remote island with Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist and starring one of his regular actors, Erland Josephson. Both in outline – it’s a chamber drama in which religious faith is used to counter the threat of nuclear Armageddon – and in detail (the main character is a failed actor, a typically Bergmanesque career path), The Sacrifice pays due reverence to Tarkovksy’s idol.
Yet even in this apparent act of homage, there’s also the sense of an apprentice attempting to outstrip his master. There’s no mistaking Tarkovsky’s hand: it doesn’t matter if he’s shooting in Sweden, Italy (as in his previous film, Nostalghia) or Russia, the pale light; the inhospitable terrain, ultra-slow pacing and startling set-pieces are dead giveaways. Here’s proof of an international master of film, one who can conjure a specific visual language and a cinematic world wherever he’s based.
That said: Tarkovsky doing Bergman tends to accentuate the director’s faults. This is a cripplingly slow and portentous film, which makes Solaris look like a whizz-bang blockbuster. The first reel goes by showing nothing more than a meandering walk-and-talk about Nietzschean philosophy, and when the film goes indoors, its characters take their inner gloom with them. The ennui is palpable, the angst piercing – and then things get worse for these people, as military planes fly overhead and the TV reports imminent apocalypse.
Finally, something is going to happen, although Tarkovsky does his best to stem possible excitement by having one character, a doctor, sedate as many of the others as possible. But Alexander, the man of the house, survives to make a pact with God: he will sacrifice everything – home, family, sanity – if he can stop the world ending. And he’s so desperate to achieve that goal that he’ll also sleep with his maid on the flimsy pretext that, according to his mate, she’s a witch. Maybe she is: not everybody can levitate during sex.
Huh? It’s at this point where Tarkovsky’s chilly imagination takes a running jump off the pier of realism. He’s never shied away from narrative weirdness, with two pieces of science-fiction to his name already, but here he adopts a tone of theological fantasy that even Bergman, a connoisseur of surreal symbolism, might baulk at. The film is in the grip of a savage existential crisis, and the world can be saved only an act of pure faith, love and martyrdom – oh, and inadvertent slapstick, as Alexander tries to sneak around, shagging witches and setting fire to his house, without his family spotting him. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be funny, but it made me laugh.
Assuming you’ve read this far, you probably think I hated The Sacrifice – and certainly, on some level, I was tearing my hair out, willing the film to get on with it. But there’s one thing stopping outright dismissal, and that’s the fact that Tarkovsky can do faith like no other director. Strip away the longeurs and the pretentious talk, and there’s a brilliant, haunting, deeply personal film here. Tarkovsky was dying (and incidentally, I’m quite prepared to see this as a work-in-progress, something the director might have refined had he felt he had time to do so), and that makes the howl of suffering all the more profound. It’s the work of a man looking at the world in the mid-1980s, and wondering how mankind would survive. So Alexander’s sacrifice becomes a dying man’s wish, a plaintive, moving ‘what if?’ When Alexander purges the present by setting fire to his house, the rage and fear is relinquished, leaving only the serenity and stillness of his son, tending to a tree in the hope that better things will grow. And, if that’s not symbolic enough, the son is played by Tarkovsky’s own boy.
The funereal atmosphere is almost unique, driven by moments of almost harrowing despair – Susan Fleetwood’s breakdown on hearing the news of impending nuclear attack is raw and disquieting, while Josephson’s prayer to God, delivered straight to camera with an unblinking gaze, is heartstoppingly intense. And then there’s the imagery, the get-out clause that I always come back to when reviewing Tarkovsky. A jug of milk crashing to the floor in slow-motion; Alexander confronted by a scale model of his house; and, most obviously, the burning of the real house – a single seven-minute take, in which characters walk and run about, cry out in despair and finally collapse into the mud while an inferno rages before them. It’ss an astonishing achievement technically and emotionally, not least because the first take was ruined by a jammed camera, requiring the crew to completely rebuild the set in order to set fire to it once more. Nobody else would have thought to film it in one take, but Tarkovsky requires absolute concentration and contemplation… and when he’s on fire, so to speak, boy does he get it.