The Sacrifice

145 minutes 1986

Andrei Tarkovsky's last film (1986) isn't on the same level as his extraordinary Stalker, but it's a fitting apocalyptic statement, made when he knew he was dying of cancer. The first and penultimate shots—ten-minute takes that are, in very different ways, remarkable and complex achievements—manage to say more than most films do over their entire length. In between these shots one finds Tarkovsky working in a mode that bears a distinct relationship to Bergman—made all the more apparent by the Swedish setting, the cinematography (by Bergman's incomparable Sven Nykvist), and the casting of Erland Josephson in the lead—but the hallucinatory camera movements and the mysticism of the plot could belong to no one but Tarkovsky. As Alexander (Josephson), a university lecturer, celebrates his birthday with family and friends, a major nuclear crisis is reported on TV, followed by a power failure. Praying for the world to return to normal, Alexander promises to give up everything he has and winds up sleeping with his maid, reportedly a witch, to seal the bargain. As with Nostalghia, Tarkovsky's previous work of exile, it's possible to balk at the filmmaker's pretensions and antiquated sexual politics and yet be overwhelmed by his mastery and originality, as well as the conviction of his sincerity. Critics have been of little help in getting to the core of this powerful visionary; a better start might be to read Tarkovsky's book, Sculpting in Time. In Swedish with subtitles.

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