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SACRIFICE, THE (OFFRET) (director/writer: Andrei Tarkovsky; cinematographer: Sven Nykvist; editors: Andrei Tarkovsky/Henri Colpi/Michal Leszczylowski; cast: Erland Josephson (Alexander), Allan Edwall (Otto, mailman), Susan Fleetwood (Adelaide), Gudrun S. Gisladottir (Maria, local witch), Sven Wollter (Victor, doctor), Filippa Franzen (Marta), Valerie Mairesse (Julia), Tommy Kjellqvist (Gossen); Runtime: 149; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Anna-Lena Wibom; Kino Video; 1986-Sweden/France/UK-in Swedish/French/English with English subtitles)
“heavy-going but brilliantly realized masterpiece.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is Andrei Tarkovsky’s (“Stalker”/”Nostalghia”/”Solaris”) last film the expatriate directed before his death in December 1986, as he died of cancer at the age of 54. It was filmed in Sweden and owes much to director Ingmar Bergman (especially all the doom and gloom). Bergman’s production company Svenska Filminstitueteven financed the film and Tarkovsky engaged his troupe members Sven Nykvist to do the photography (the world’s best cinematographer at the time whose beautiful photography is well-displayed here), the art director Anna Asp and Erland Josephson to be the star. At the Cannes Film Festival it won the Grand Prix. Tarkovsky’s stunning looking “realist parable” with an apocalyptic scenario was teasingly meant to be allusive much like a dream. It leaves the viewer questioning what has been said about sacrifice, whether in Christian, Zen, didactic, or artistic terms or as the human gift that separates man from beasts. Tarkovsky has stated in his book Sculpting in Time that he meant “to make a film about a man whose dependence upon others brings him to independence and for whom love is at once thrall and ultimate freedom.”

The heavy-going but brilliantly realized masterpiece opens to an unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci, “The Adoration of the Magi,” accompanied by the aria “Erbarme dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It then shows an old man and his young child, unable to speak due to a throat operation, planting a tree (at the film’s end, the youngster will speak while watering the tree–indicating an optimism the director had for the future generation despite mankind’s current sickness).

It will cover 24 hours in the life of the sixtysomething world-weary retired professor, Alexander (Erland Josephson), a former actor turned critic, writer and philosopher being visited by a number of friends and family members to celebrate his birthday. The patriarch lives in a remote luxurious house on an island off Sweden’s Baltic coast with ex-actress and unfaithful zany English wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood, sister of Fleetwood Mac’s Mick), teenage daughter Marta (Filippa Franzen) and a young son who is known as Gossen or “Little Man” (Tommy Kjellvqist). There’s also the charwoman named Julia (Valerie Maitesse), a merry eccentric bicycling postman named Otto (Allan Edwall), a conflicted doctor (his wife’s lover) named Victor (Sven Wollter) who will in the end decide to move to Australia and a mysterious Icelandic woman reputed to be a witch named Maria (Gudrun S. Gisladottir). While the celebration is going on the TV informs them of an impending nuclear war just before there’s a Big Bang and a power outage. At that point Alexander in his prayers makes a private vow to God that if he and his family live until dawn, he will divorce himself from humanity and live in solitude and destroy all his possessions if the world can return to normal. The mailman advises him to sleep with the local witch Maria, a holy innocent, as a means of seeking atonement for mankind’s sins and need for constant warfare. Sleeping with her enables him to be cured through God’s mercy, and on the next morning when the world doesn’t end the intellectual must keep his word or betray all he believes in. One of the last shots in the film, which lasts six and a half minutes, strikingly depicts the burning down of Alexander’s mansion by him. It’s Tarkovsky’s way of saying how sick mankind has become because of the loss of spirituality in favor of seeking only material happiness. The results of mankind’s sickness and the rape of nature are ongoing wars, strife and a civilization built on fear and unconcern for others. The meaning of sacrifice for Tarkovsky relates more than anything else to the moment of crisis in a person’s personal life, which results in the moment of clarity that calls for an irrevocable resolution. It’s Tarkovsky at his most personal (even more so than in his fragmented autobiographical The Mirror) and at the same time artiest and most universal, but was not intended as his last artistic testament (he had no idea he was that sick and would soon succumb). He already had a few projects to choose from – among them Hoffmaniana, a work based on the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, and an adaptation of Hamlet. The film also has some intriguing Swedish folk tunes and Japanese woodwinds.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”