The Sacrifice is my second favorite Tarkovsky film, after Stalker, but it contains some of my favorite scenes and images from the man’s ouevre. The film centers around Alexander (Erland Josephson), a retired professor who has gathered friends and family together at his beloved coastal home to celebrate his birthday. The festivities are quickly forgotten, however, when jets scream by overhead and the birthday party begins hearing news reports that war has broken out around the world.
Distraught by the calamity surrounding him, Alexander, who has previously admitted to having no faith, falls to his knees and begs God to save the world from the impending doom. In return, he promises to sacrifice and forego everything he loves: his family, his friends, his house, his speech, and even his beloved son. What then follows is a sequence of bizarre, dreamlike sequences (which look stunning, thanks to veteran cinematographer Sven Nykvist) that begin calling into question Alexander’s sanity even as it becomes increasingly clear that God has answered his urgent prayer.
Tarkovsky is not the easiest filmmaker to “get.” His films are demanding as few other filmmakers’ are. They are full of surreal imagery, long takes that border on glacial, obtuse characters, and dialog laden with philosophical and metaphysical musings. The Sacrifice is no different, but at the same time, there’s a directness and urgency to the film — which makes sense considering that Tarkovsky knew he was dying when he made it.
Not surprisingly, The Sacrifice has often been labelled Tarkovsky’s “last will and testament,” a summation of all of his ideas concerning art, humanity, and spirituality. I think that comes through vividly in the scene above, as Alexander submits to the primacy of the spiritual as the last and final bulwark against oblivion.