British film poster
|Directed by||Andrei Tarkovsky|
|Produced by||Anna-Lena Wibom|
|Written by||Andrei Tarkovsky|
Guðrún S. Gísladóttir
|Music by||Johann Sebastian Bach|
|Edited by||Andrei Tarkovsky|
|Distributed by||Sandrew (Swedish theatrical)|
|Box office||$300,653 (USA)|
The Sacrifice (Swedish: Offret) is a 1986 drama film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Starring Erland Josephson, it centers on a middle-aged intellectual who attempts to bargain with God to stop an impending nuclear holocaust. The Sacrifice was Tarkovsky's third film as a Soviet expatriate, after Nostalghia and the documentary Voyage in Time, and was also his last, as he died shortly after its completion. Like 1972's Solaris, it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film opens on the birthday of Alexander (Erland Josephson), an actor who gave up the stage to work as a journalist, critic, and lecturer on aesthetics. He lives in a beautiful house with his actress wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), stepdaughter Marta (Filippa Franzén), and young son, "Little Man", who is temporarily mute due to a throat operation. Alexander and Little Man plant a tree by the seaside, when Alexander's friend Otto, a part-time postman, delivers a birthday card to him. When Otto asks, Alexander mentions that his relationship with God is "nonexistent". After Otto leaves, Adelaide and Victor, a medical doctor and a close family friend who performed Little Man's operation, arrive at the scene and offer to take Alexander and Little Man home in Victor's car. However, Alexander prefers to stay behind and talk to his son. In his monologue, Alexander first recounts how he and Adelaide found this lovely house near the sea by accident, and how they fell in love with the house and surroundings, but then enters a bitter tirade against the state of modern man. As Tarkovsky wrote, Alexander is weary of "the pressures of change, the discord in his family, and his instinctive sense of the threat posed by the relentless march of technology"; in fact, he has "grown to hate the emptiness of human speech".
The family, as well as Victor and Otto, gather at Alexander's house for the celebration. Their maid Maria leaves, while nurse-maid Julia stays to help with the dinner. People comment on Maria's odd appearances and behavior. The guests chat inside the house, where Otto reveals that he is a student of paranormal phenomena, a collector of "inexplicable but true incidences." Just when the dinner is almost ready, the rumbling noise of low-flying jet fighters interrupts them, and soon after, as Alexander enters, a news program announces the beginning of what appears to be all-out war, and possibly nuclear holocaust. In despair, he vows to God to sacrifice all he loves, even Little Man, if this may be undone. Otto advises him to slip away and lie with Maria, who Otto convinces him is a witch, "in the best possible sense". Alexander takes his gun, leaves a note in his room, escapes the house, and rides his bike to where she is staying. She is bewildered when he makes his advances, but when he puts his gun to his temple ("Don't kill us, Maria"), at which point the jet-fighters' rumblings return, she soothes him and they consummate while floating above her bed, though Alexander's reaction is ambiguous.
When he awakes the next morning, in his own bed, everything seems normal. Nevertheless, Alexander sets forth to give up all he loves and possesses. He tricks the family members and friends into going for a walk, and sets fire to their house when they are away. As the group rushes back, alarmed by the fire, Alexander confesses that he set the fire himself, and furiously runs around. Maria, who until then was not seen that morning, appears in the fire scene; Alexander tries to approach her, but is restrained by others. Without explanation, an ambulance appears in the area, and two paramedics chase Alexander, who appears to have lost control of himself, and drive off with him. Maria begins to bicycle away, but stops halfway to observe Little Man watering the tree he and Alexander planted the day before.[n 1] As Maria leaves the scene, the "mute" Little Man, lying at the foot of the tree, speaks his only line, which quotes the opening Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word.[Jn 1:1] Why is that, Papa?"
The Sacrifice originated as a screenplay entitled The Witch, which preserved the element of a middle-aged protagonist spending the night with a reputed witch. However, in this story, his cancer was miraculously cured, and he ran away with the woman.[n 2] In March 1982, Tarkovsky wrote in his journal that he considered this ending "weak", as the happy ending was unchallenged. He wanted personal favorite and frequent collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn to star in this picture, as was also his intention for Nostalghia, but when Solonitsyn died from cancer in 1982, the director rewrote the screenplay into what would become The Sacrifice and also filmed Nostalghia with Oleg Yankovsky as the lead.
Tarkovsky considered The Sacrifice different from his earlier films because, while he commented that his recent films had been "impressionistic in structure", in this case he not only "aimed...to develop [its] episodes in the light of my own experience and of the rules of dramatic structure", but also to "[build] the picture into a poetic whole in which all the episodes were harmoniously linked", and that because of this, it "took on the form of a poetic parable". [n 3]
At the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Tarkovsky was invited to film in Sweden, as he was a long-time friend of Anna-Lena Wibom of the Swedish Film Institute. He decided to film The Sacrifice with Erland Josephson, who was best known for his work with Ingmar Bergman,[n 4] and whom Tarkovsky had directed in Nostalghia.[n 5] Cinematographer Sven Nykvist, a friend of Josephson and frequent collaborator with Ingmar Bergman,[n 6] was asked to join the production. Despite a contemporaneous offer to shoot Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa, Nykvist later said that it was "not a difficult choice", and like Josephson, he became a co-producer when he invested his fees back into the film. Production designer Anna Asp, who worked on Bergman's Autumn Sonata and After the Rehearsal, and had won an Academy Award alongside Susanne Lingheim for Fanny and Alexander, also joined the project, as well as Daniel Bergman, one of Ingmar's children, who worked as a camera assistant.[n 7] Many critics would comment on The Sacrifice in the context of Bergman's work.[n 8]
While often erroneously claimed to have been shot on Fårö,[n 9] The Sacrifice was actually filmed at Närsholmen on the nearby island of Gotland; the Swedish military denied Tarkovsky access to Fårö.
Alexander's house, specially built for the production, was to be burned for the climactic scene, in which Alexander burns his house and his possessions. The shot was very difficult to achieve, and the first failed attempt was, according to Tarkovsky, the only problem during shooting. Despite Sven Nykvist's protest, only one camera was used for this scene, and while shooting the burning house, the camera jammed and the footage was thus ruined.[n 10]
The scene had to be reshot, requiring a quick and very costly reconstruction of the house in two weeks. This time, two cameras were set up on tracks, running parallel to each other. The footage in the final version of the film is the second take, which lasts for six minutes (and ends abruptly because the camera had run through an entire reel). The cast and crew broke down in tears after the take was completed.
Tarkovsky and Nykvist performed significant amounts of color reduction on select scenes. According to Nykvist, almost sixty percent of the color was removed from these parts.[n 11]
The film won Tarkovsky his second Grand Prix, after Solaris, his fourth FIPRESCI Prize at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and his third Palme D'Or nomination.[n 12][n 13] The Sacrifice also won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.[n 14] At the 22nd Guldbagge Awards, the film won the awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Erland Josephson). In 1988, it won the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 59th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
Since the 1980s, reviewers have been responding positively to the film; the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 85%, based on 40 reviews with an average rating of 7.5/10.
In 1995, the Vatican compiled a list of 45 'great films', separated into the categories of "Religion", "Values", and "Art", to recognize the centennial of cinema. The Sacrifice was included under the first category, as well as Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev.
However, critics have commented on The Sacrifice's religious ambiguities. Dennis Lim points out that it is "not exactly a simple allegory of Christian atonement and self-sacrifice". Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus contrasts the film's "dialectic of Christian and pagan ideas" with Andrei Rublev, writing that, while Rublev "[rejects] the advances of an alluring pagan witch as incompatible with Christian love", The Sacrifice "juxtaposes" both sensibilities.