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Cinema: End-of-the- World Blues the Sacrifice

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

To see The Sacrifice after a junk-food diet of Hollywood movies is like ducking out of a carnival to visit a medieval crypt. You are pulled out of time and into a sacred stillness. The images, handsomely sculpted, address themes of life and death and life after death. Gods and gargoyles hover in the cramped air, dwarfing all human anxieties. Man is a mite here, pitiable in his ignorance of what matters, or else vainglorious in his quest to find the answers to riddles beyond his solving.

This is the mood in Solaris, Mirror and the other sanctuaries erected over the past quarter-century by Andrei Tarkovsky. The pleasures these films admit are rarefied: the meticulous placing of actors and objects in a frame, the charged and stately grace of a camera movement, the surreal images from someone else’s dream. Yet you should also feel the spectacular unity of vision and visuals, of passion and method. Compared with The Sacrifice’s art, the formal sophistication of even the best Hollywood movies seems superficially applied, like press-on nails and a styling gel.

The Sacrifice is only the seventh feature film in a career that began with the lyrical, prize-laden My Name Is Ivan (1962). Tarkovsky was just 30 then, the son of a renowned Soviet poet and the rising sun of the Soviet film establishment — a cinema Yevtushenko. But soon his artistic intransigence and the supposed obscurity of his themes nettled the bureaucracy that financed his films. The epic Andrei Rublev, completed in 1966, was not released in the U.S.S.R. until 1971; Solaris (1972), based on the Stanislaw Lem novel, suffered official censure; the lusciously enigmatic Mirror (1978) and Stalker (1979) sealed Tarkovsky’s fate as a picturemaker on the way out. Within a few years, he was. He went to Italy to make Nostalghia (1983), about a Russian estranged from his homeland, and to Sweden for The Sacrifice with Ingmar Bergman Stalwarts Erland Josephson and Cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Tarkovsky now lives in Paris, ailing from cancer.

So it is not surprising that at the twilight of his life, this introspective artist should imagine the last flash of the last night of everybody’s life — the end of the world — on film. The Sacrifice comprises 24 hours in the lives of eight people at a secluded summer house. The upstairs quartet is Alexander (Josephson), a former actor who now teaches aesthetics; his English wife (Susan Fleetwood); a grown daughter (Filippa Franzen); and an adored son called Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). In various levels of the servant class are two maids, Julia (Valerie Mairesse) and Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir); Victor (Sven Wollter), a handsome doctor who attends the illnesses and neuroses of this frazzled family; and Otto (Allan Edwall), a postman who spouts Nietzsche, and will goad Alexander toward the starring role in a holocaustic farce-tragedy.

They could be Eugene O’Neill’s soul-wizened Tyrones, or an extended Chekhovian family chatting its way toward collapse, or the Ewings under sedation. And Tarkovsky is happy to display them in their dolors, at his pace, with all the spare majesty of his style. In the morning, Alexander celebrates his birthday by planting a tree with his son — an ordinary bucolic tableau, captured in a ravishing shot that lasts almost ten minutes. That afternoon, when the daughter playfully balances a pear on the doctor’s knee, it seems a daring bit of coquetry; nothing more need be revealed. Then at night Alexander hears a radio report of an imminent World War III. He rushes downstairs; a sonic burst sets the house reverberating; a pitcher of milk tumbles slowly from its cabinet and breaks on the floor. Alexander snaps too.

And here The Sacrifice strips gears and revs into a kind of controlled delirium. It embraces elements of old-dark-house melodramas (a creaking door, a dead phone) and French farce (Alexander sneaking down a ladder for a late- night tryst). Yes, the end of any world, even this desiccated one, can be both spooky and funny. And so is Alexander’s unshakable belief, stoked by Otto, that the fate of the planet depends on his “lying with” the ethereal Maria. Is she Eve or Lilith, Mary or Mary Magdalene? Or just a maid who understands that even a dotty master deserves the rite-of-last-night? Like any man trying to take any woman to bed, Alexander offers her a two-faced come-on: If we make love we can create a new world; if we don’t make love I’ll kill myself. Out of sympathy, she accedes to his plea, and their bed revolves and rises, sharing their forced ecstasy.

Earlier that night, this Father Abraham of the apocalypse had vowed to surrender his beloved son if God would only restore everything to its earlier state of blessed torpor. And come morning, all is restored, in spades. Mama is whining, Daughter is pouting, Doctor is leaving. The world may not be ending, but theirs is — with a whimper. For Alexander, the only rational response is to go crazy. He carefully sets the house afire and (in a wondrous 6 1/2-min. shot) runs about the grounds, eluding his family until he is carted off in an ambulance, and the gutted house collapses. Each nuclear family detonates its own nuclear catastrophe.

The Sacrifice ends on a note of desperate hope: that every birth means a new genesis. As the ambulance careers by, Little Man waters his father’s tree. He relaxes under it and says, “In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?” It is a poignant query, a heroic response, especially since the speaker is not only this Little Man but also Tarkovsky — a man who has virtually offered up his life in the sacrifice to make, not good movies, but great films. In The Sacrifice, the cryptic Tarkovsky style helps create a towering cathedral.

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