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The Sacrifice (1986)
Writer and director: Andrei Tarkovsky

review by Peter Schilling

The Sacrifice (aka: Offret) is an SF/fantasy by the Russian director of Solaris (recently remade by Hollywood) and Stalker (1979). Made in 1986, it was to be Tarkovsky's last film (he died of a brain tumour in December that year). Shot on a Swedish island, with Ingmar Bergman's regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, The Sacrifice is a reflection on profound faith and its place in a secular world, and won reverential praise from many prominent critics.
   A writer and somewhat reclusive intellectual, Alexander (Erland Josephson) has wearily anguished monologues about weighty philosophical issues. On his birthday, family members and close friends gather at his home to celebrate the occasion. Guests include two daughters, and eccentric local postman Otto (Allan Edwall), who delivers an ancient map as a gift, evoking an historical context to this sombre tale of spirituality and the world's end. In a lengthy opening sequence, Alexander plants a (symbolic) tree, closely watched by his grandson. When a TV broadcast announces the onset of WW3, the diners are left feeling numb or panic-stricken.
   Given the director's penchant for philosophical themes and cultural bias, it is hardly surprising that The Sacrifice is unavoidably though elegantly pretentious. However, the film remains eminently watchable if you can tolerate its ponderous narrative (a running time of 142 minutes feels like over three hours) and decidedly non-fantastical images in a supposedly genre production. The only specific depictions of an impending holocaust in the film are a couple of dream sequences, one of a deserted city square, another of urban pandemonium with young people rushing about - signifying the breakdown of social order, and the deafening roar of unseen low-flying aircraft that rattles the contents of china display cabinets in Alexander's living room.
   Although vaguely reminiscent of Christian de Chalonge's talky Malevil (1981), and Nicolas Roeg's stunning Insignificance (1985), The Sacrifice is nonetheless a distinctive art house offering that's agonizingly slow at times but superbly photographed in colour and b/w. Alexander strives to avert catastrophe with a fervent plea to God, promising he will sacrifice everything that he values if the world can be spared. When he wakes up the next day, it seems that his wish has been granted - but as always, there is a high price to pay for salvation. In the end, Alexander forsakes his family and burns down his house.
   The Sacrifice carries a PG certificate, but the content of extras in this DVD Region 2 release from Artificial Eye means this package is rated 12 overall. The second disc has a documentary by film editor Michel Leszczylowski, Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky (97 minutes), profiling the filmmaker at work, and features behind the scenes footage of this production. There are also filmographies, production notes, and a stills gallery.
The Sacrifice
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