DVD Review Of The Sacrifice
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/15/10
Watching Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky’s final 1986 film, The Sacrifice (Offret Sacrificatio), is an exercise in cinema appreciation; not because it is a great film, but because it has great moments and moments of sheer monotonous boredom. It is one of those rare films that goes to the antipodes of what is good and bad in that art form. Overall, it’s a film worth seeing, but it is in no way, shape, nor form a great film; much less a masterpiece. Tarkovsky, who had fled the Soviet Union, filmed The Sacrifice in Sweden, using Swedish actors- including Erland Josephson, the star of many Ingmar Bergman films, and used Bergman’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, as well. This was a wise choice, as The Sacrifice is one of the more arresting visual works anyone is likely to see onscreen, especially in its interesting choice of medium shots as the dominant frame, or mis-en-scene. Yet, where the film falters is by, instead of maximizing the positive traits of Tarkovsky and the Bergman contingent, the film brought out the worst elements of Tarkovsky and Bergman. As example, Tarkovsky wrote the screenplay, and like most Tarkovsky films, The Sacrifice is long (142 minutes on the Kino DVD), but it lacks all of the subtle poesy in earlier Tarkovsky films (Solaris, Stalker) and instead indulges on overwrought scenes of terror and regret. There are early scenes where philosophic banter occurs, but the last three quarters of the film is filled with some astonishingly bad acting, which has to be laid at the feet of Tarkovsky. Bergman, who was possibly the greatest screenwriter of the Twentieth Century, was always concise in his screenplays. However, whereas that strength of Bergman is ignored, Bergman’s greatest weakness is employed, and that is a relentlessly depressing view of life and the characters. One knows from the beginning that they are all doomed, and, save for the youngest character in the film, this comes to fruition, although, this is only so if one renders the most positive interpretation of the film possible. In all other ways, that ending is likely a delusion, which means Bergmanian dourness combines with a dearth of Tarkovskian poesy to make the film dark, despairing, and oftentimes dull.
On the positive side, Tarkovsky is simply too great a director that even by indulging in his worst self-pitying modes (he was dying of cancer at the time of filming) he cannot, overall, create a film that is not memorable and whose indelible imagery does not stick with the viewer long after the film is done. Before I dissect the ills and successes of this film further, let me give a précis on its screenplay. And this is what is occurring onscreen, not what is often reported as being the tale, expounded upon in many reviews, in which the reviewer takes information not seen onscreen, but available in press releases, and puts it forth, often to the headshaking of viewers who saw no evidence of the film described in a review.
The lead character is a man named Alexander (Erland Josephson), who is seen with a young child called Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). Later we surmise that the boy is Alexander’s son. He also has a wife, and it would appear, a teen daughter named Julia (Valerie Mairesse). We know next to nothing about the clan, despite many reviews which claim Alexander an atheist or an artist, Little Man a mute, and the younger wife (by two or so decades) an actress. None of this is conveyed in the film (at least not in the golden subtitles provided by the Kino DVD). While planting a tree on the shores of a sea, Alexander tells Little Man some homilies, then talks with a neighbor, a postman named Otto (Allan Edwall- another Bergman regular), who is clearly not in his right mind. They return to Alexander’s house and they debate philosophic and other matters. It is a dark, spartan, but beautiful home. Then, we hear the roar of missiles overhead. The house shakes, but we see little of the devastation that the characters feel, as they listen to tv reports of a war having been unleashed. After Otto faints, the others retire for the night, and Alexander recites the Lord’s Prayer, and begs that he will give up all to undo the war, so his family and friends can live in peace. Given that this film is contemporaneous, and the Cold War was in its death throes, such pessimism is odd, but the film handles it well.
The tone the film strikes invokes two of Bergman’s greatest films from the 1960s: Winter Light and Shame. However, this film is nowhere in a league with those two earlier classics, despite its Chekhovian chamber drama feel and almost anti-filmic posturing. Nonetheless, the representations of the states of mind of Alexander are aptly conveyed through the use of color and its lack, The film is at times dazzlingly colorful, black and white, sepia-toned, and desaturated colors. Much of it is set at night. After his prayer, the loony Otto visits and convinces Alexander that an Icelandic maid of his, Maria (Gudún S. Gísladóttir), is a witch who has the hots for him, and can set the world right again. That the solution to Alexander’s problem is one of the oldest male fantasies going- banging the winsome help, does not lend dramatic heft to the screenplay. Alexander takes off on bicycle, and sleeps with the woman. We see them in bed, then twirling entwined above it, and we then see Alexander wake up, with normalcy seemingly restored. Yet, Alexander is now clearly insane. Whether or not he was from the outset, and the film merely depicted his insanity and fear of a nuclear war, is not made clear. But, he turns into a pyromaniac, burns down his house, and an ambulance comes to take him to an asylum. The fact that an ambulance arrives out in the middle of nowhere, only a few minutes after the fire is set, and that old Alexander can outrun the younger men and medics, suggests that the viewer is not seeing any objective reality, and strongly suggests that we are watching a dream of some sort. But, whether real or not, the scene has no dramatic heft because it makes no sense, either in a real world sense or in the limited sense of the film. The final scene we see is of Little Man under the tree he and Alexander planted, uttering his only words of the film, ‘In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, papa?’
Some claim that it is the end of the film that is the dream, that Alexander gives up his sanity to save the world from a nuclear holocaust, but that does not explain the many later scenes that are clearly from an objective point of view, nor Little Man’s watching his father carted to the loony bin. The best explanation is that Alexander is insane, and the early part of the film is all within his mind, while the later part of the film sees an intermingling of dawning reality, until the fire totally frees the film from the mind of Alexander. That, or that the whole film is a lucid dream, dreamt by an unseen godhead. But, here is the main point: little in this film will compel a viewer to care one way or the other if the film is based in reality or not, because it will bore to tears the average filmgoer, even the average Tarkovsky or Bergman fan.
There are some really atrocious scenes, such as when Alexander’s wife, Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), goes apeshit crazy, well out of proportion to what has been suffered, and is restrained by a young local doctor, Victor (Sven Wollter), who may or may not be her lover, and who is also lusted for by Julia. It is a bad bit of scenery-chewing that made me think of some similar scenes in Bergman’s own overwrought melodrama Cries And Whispers. A bit later, the family’s other maid, Marta (Filippa Franzen) has a similarly bad scene when she bizarrely refuses to wake Little Man from a nap. The middle part of the film is tedious and does not define the characters as individuals at all, rather lumps them all together as a package of assorted nuts. In this way, despite the focus on Alexander, the film is not a character study of an individual (as many critics claim), but a depiction of possible mass psychosis.
The Kino DVD includes a fabulous 1988 documentary called Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky, which shows behind the scenes moments on this final film, with explanations of things by the director’s widow, including his philosophy that cinema is about sculpting in time. Not a single other extra is included- no audio commentary nor even a theatrical trailer. But, the documentary is worth it. The reason is it shows scenes not included in the final cut, and details how the final screenplay was a meld of two earlier ones- one about the witch motif, and the other about the Armageddon. The information on the origins of the screenplay amply distill the problem the final tale has, and the inclusion of one scene, in particular, which was cut, shows how Tarkovsky confused dream and reality in the film. Either the film needed more of the dream logic of a film like Solaris, or it needed a more straightforward narrative to take the viewer along with it. Sitting on the fence, as The Sacrifice does, was the worst option. The original scene, as shown in the documentary, shoes Alexander in a coffin, then pans left to show him on a couch, surrounded by the others, then a series of other shots of odd goings on in the house, ending with a shot of a nude Julia running after chickens. As a whole, it is enigmatic, but in a good sense, as opposed to, say, the scene of Alexander and Maria spinning above their bed. There is a Negative Capability in the longer scene. However, in the final cut of the film we see only Julia nakedly running after the chickens. It comes out of nowhere, and makes no real nor negatively capable sense.
On the other hand, there is a repeated shot, in black and white, of people running out of an urban tunnel and down stairs, into some bombed out courtyard, that works supremely well. This is especially so in the second use of this scene, which continues past where the first scene ended, to show a bloody, and possibly dead, Little Man. It is clearly a dream, but also marvelously echoes a similar image from the Bergman film, Persona, filmed over two decades earlier. What also works is the film’s score, which features Johann Sebastian Bach, flute music, and traditional Scandinavian chants, as well as a sequence of moments in the film where several of the main characters almost seem to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. However, the fact that Tarkovsky was a religious man consciously trying to fit his film into the atheist confines of a Bergmanian worldview is a stumbling block the film, and its characters, never successfully surmount, for they feel out of place and lost in every scene; even those where they seemingly should gain insight.
As for the documentary, what makes this one so terrific (aside from the thankful dearth of arrogant and ignorant talking heads) is that it delves into not only Tarkovsky’s greatness as an artist, but also his flaws, which were evident in this film. Tarkovsky, it shows, was too obsessed with ideas of art as a form of spirituality (in effect limning his own artistic limits), and on getting things just right, with no compromises at all- such as the penultimate fire scene, which had to be refilmed (with the house rebuilt) because the camera jammed during the first filming.), rather than letting the power of the artwork itself take ahold. This is one of the greatest flaws that an artist makes- sticking with an initial idea or concept even when something better comes along. One has to abandon the original idea, and embrace the new and better concept, because one can always return to the original idea later, whereas the better idea is usually of the moment, and unrepeatable. Furthermore, the fire scene, which Tarkovsky says was the genesis of the film, and its raison d’etre, is really not important. It is all anticlimax, for at that point we know exactly how the film will end, but….we’ll never know if Tarkovsky would have been able to come up with something better had he attempted a different scene to fill in the gaps. Any great artist will tell you that often it is the errors they make that are the things that elevate the art they are doing from merely good to great, and unless one is willing to allow the Negative Capability of a small failure work, the chances for greatness are diminished severely. Instead, Tarkovsky perdured, but his ideas, in that scene and in the overall film, well exceeded his grasp; a flaw he shared with the bulk of Classical Russian novelists, who similarly could get longwinded in their philosophical preenings. In short, Tarkovsky did not heed his own idea about sculpting in time, for many more shards should have been shed in this film’s creation.
Ultimately, art is an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. This fact does not deny emotion a place in art, it merely recognizes the primacy of the intellect in the construction of art; one of its elements which may, of course, be an emotional one. However, an emotion or a spiritual essence is the thing used; not the user. Emotions are autonomic responses (think of when police toss a hostile suspect into a pink colored room to calm him down), incapable of the contemplation and distillation that informs the processes that go into making great art. Such a reflex reaction is not capable of the same sort nor level of creation that a reasoned aesthetic appreciation can dole. Thus, when an art invokes merely an emotional response of like or dislike, the percipient is utterly incapable of explaining the whys and wherefores to another. The same is not true of someone who can discern good and bad. It was this lack of critical recognition by Tarkovsky which led to all the problems that suffuse The Sacrifice; at least so the documentary demonstrates.
The visual arts, of which film is the most poetic and powerful, are brands, which sear their power in to the mind, whereas other more abstract arts, like writing, are like intricate woodcarving that is crafted bit by bit. A good screenplay requires the latter’s hold on the mind tempered by the former’s power in the belly, and while The Sacrifice is laden with images that sear, ultimately, there is little more than crumbs as food.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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