Andrei Tarkovksy’s final film, The Sacrifice, is a work of immense power and arresting imagery. Made as he was dying from cancer, the film wrestles with questions of spiritual commitment and the efficacy of man’s actions. Like any Tarkovksy film, the ruminations are often impenetrable, but no film that sets it sights this high should have easy answers forthcoming.
The film’s photography by Sven Nykvist and its starring turn from Erland Josephson aren’t its only connections to Ingmar Bergman. Like a good number of Bergman’s films, The Sacrifice exposes blisteringly raw human emotions in the wake of spiritual anguish. But the film remains unmistakably Tarkovskian, with his contemplative, steady pacing and slow tracking shots anchoring a story that grows increasingly mystical.
Josephson stars as Alexander, the patriarch of a Swedish family living on a remote Baltic island. The film opens on his birthday as he plants a withered tree with his beloved son, whom he simply calls Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). He relates a story about a dead tree unerringly tended to that came to life and asserts his belief that a single action performed with conviction can have far-reaching consequences.
Later, the family gathers in their home to celebrate, and Alexander is surrounded by his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), his older daughter Marta (Filippa Franzén), and mercurial mailman Otto (Allan Edwall), among others. The celebration is cut short by a TV news report declaring nuclear war to be imminent, sending everyone, particularly Adelaide, into an emotional tailspin.
Here, the film shifts from colorful, natural tones to an increasingly desaturated palette, until it’s almost become a black-and-white film. Alexander cries out to God, offering himself as a sacrifice to end the madness, and Otto provides a method, telling him their maid, Maria (Guðrún Gísladóttir), is a witch. Otto claims that if Alexander sleeps with her, the crisis will be averted.
Operating under this pretense, Alexander travels to her house just down the road and launches into a series of actions he believes will act as a counterbalance to the impending devastation. Tarkovksy detaches the film from reason just as subtly as he drains the color from the film itself, until Alexander has fully committed to what looks like madness as his ultimate sacrifice.