Sacrifice, The (1986)

The Sacrifice (1986), written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.


Every gift involves a sacrifice. If not, what kind of gift would it be?

I don't often venture into slow-moving European art film territory, but I saw this back when and have always had a soft spot for it. It takes time getting there, but builds to a powerfully moving finish.

Alexander is an old man with a young son. He and the rest of the family are staying at their country house on a Swedish island in the summer when twilight lasts practically all night long.

Nuclear war begins and it's holocaust elsewhere. Alexander has visions of city rubble and fleeing mobs, and a nightmare of his son running from him. He prays and makes a deal with God: undo this and I will give up everything I have, all my attachments, be separated from my family and never speak another word.

An eccentric postman wakes him up in the middle of the night and tells him that it can all be made right. Alexander must ride a bicycle around to the other side of the bay and lie with an Icelandic witch who has the power to undo it all.

Alexander takes some convincing but then finds himself on the bike on a twilight path, trying to decide: go ahead, or back?

I'll say no more, but the second half of the film justifies the long build up: scenes not to be missed.

The director died soon after completing the film. In many ways it is his tribute to Ingmar Bergman. Photographed by Sven Nykvist.

Many oblique biblical allusions. There is a Leonardo painting: sometimes you look at it, and sometimes it looks out at you. At the end it is not at all clear what just happened, or how many other stories we have glimpsed without understanding.

There are different musical streams: it opens and closes with meditative Bach. Alexander sleeps to recordings of a Japanese wooden flute. In many scenes there is a faint far-off calling, which at first I thought might be angels over by the horizon. In the end you realize it is herdsmen calling to the cattle.

Now, a caution. When I say it is slow starting: 5 minutes of credits, then 20 minutes with Alexander, son, and postman, just strolling on the grass and talking. Then 20 minutes in the household, visiting, pondering. Then the war starts and we have some psychodrama when the electricity fails. Then the story starts moving.

Available on Blu-ray, but not from Netflix. It has heavy edge enhancement and I see a lot of black crush.

[Later: Kino has a new restoration on Blu-ray but I haven't seen it yet].