Upon its release 28 years ago, Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, was variously called “stunningly beautiful” and “impossible to sit through” by critics. It is both.
Tarkovsky’s two-and-a-half-hour meditation — on the death of intellectual curiosity in the modern age and, ultimately, on death itself — unfolds in only two settings: a sprawling manor as spartan and shadowy as the da Vinci frescoes showcased in the opening credits; and a strip of seaside-hugging, pastoral acreage.
Sven Nykvist’s prolonged wide shots of these exquisitely gloomy backdrops — there’s nary a close-up in the entire film — dwarf Tarkovsky’s already impotent characters. At the forefront of The Sacrifice is that most annoying of ironies: a windbag who prattles on about the futility of words, yet still keeps on talking. This dour essayist, Alexander (Erland Josephson), is thrown a birthday party by his melodramatic wife, Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood),his mute son “Little Man” (guess if he talks by film’s end), and several glum friends. Punctuating all the Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Biblical references are shots of low-flying jets rattling the china and radio reports of impending Armageddon, which prompt Alexander to promise God he’ll sacrifice his house and family in exchange for restored order.
Even the kinetic scenes here are rather heavy-handed (a lengthy house fire, a levitating sex scene) and can’t revive the film from its bookish stupor. This new 35mm restoration will surely render Tarkovsky’s bare-bones visuals more compelling to behold. But Tarkovsky’s philosophizing will only intrigue those who still quiver at the shopworn lament that advancing technology is destroying the world.