Sunday, 5 December 2010

Russian Around Sweden

The Sacrifice 1986 Sweden
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Artificial Eye Region 2

You know... I have hundreds, maybe thousands, of favourite movies and a fair few favourite directors. I look at all kinds of movies which run the gamut of styles of what some people might like to consider “high art” films right down to what some people might say is the trashiest of trash movies. And there’s certainly no argument that all those different kinds of films exist and emit a certain aesthetic sensibility which allow for such mind-numbingly obvious categorising to take place.

As for me though... I don’t discriminate. Any movie from Fellini to the lowliest porn movie is an artistic experience. Any movie where even the most basic artistic decisions like “where do I put the camera?”, “which direction do I point the camera?”, “do I turn some lighting on?” etc are demonstrating at least a very basic artistic sensibility in their creation and therefore, to this raggedy old viewer anyway, they are a piece of art.

You may argue, if you like, that some demonstrate the difference between good and bad art - and I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that as long as you will also be as good as to remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we all respond to things differently. But I don’t negotiate with terrorists who insist that any one kind of movie is inherently better than another. They can try to argue that stuff with me if they like but I’ll firmly stand my ground, restate my argument and happily leave them to play those games with more gullible viewers than I.

I’m happy to play favourites, however. And so I can unhesitatingly say that there are two directors, both sadly no longer with us, whose work I prize more than any others and if I was somehow forced to stick my neck out on the subject then I’d happily argue that these two have probably produced only what could be described as the greatest cinematic art of our time. The two film-makers who pretty much make a “masterpiece” with every film they turned their hand to. Those two directors are Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky and, again, if I was in the neck-sticking game then I’d really have to say that Kurosawa is my personal favourite... but Andrei Tarkovsky, the poet of the cinema, is certainly a very close second on my list of the greatest celluloid artists.

Now Tarkovsky had a troubled life. He struggled to make films in the Soviet Union with many films taking him ages to complete because of the oppressive system of making movies in Russia at that time. In fact, in his lifetime he made only seven feature length films (8 if you count his final major student film The Steamroller and the Violin which is really worth a look) and there was a lot of artistic struggle and turmoil going on pretty much for all of those as far as I can make out. His last two movies were not made in Russia. The excellent Nostalgia was shot in Italy and completed with money from Italy after Mosfilm withdrew from the project. By the time he had finished preparing his last film ready to begin shooting in Sweden, he had decided he was defecting and he never went back to Russia again. His son was not allowed to join him but he was released from the country to visit him in hospital in Paris after his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer... his son also had to pick up some of the many awards which this last film won. Tarkovsky shot The Sacrifice in 1985 but died at the age of 54 on December 29th 1986... the same year The Sacrifice was released in the cinema.

Now it’s been a couple of decades since I last/first saw The Sacrifice. It was never my favourite Tarkovsky film... which is my roundabout way of saying that it’s my least favourite Tarkovsky film and certainly the one which I’d never rewatched at least a few times, unlike all his other “masterpieces”. I think I may have just been OD’d on Tarkovsky at the time because I remember seeing this and at least two others, Mirror and Nostalgia, within the same week. Mirror and Nostalgia both left an impression on me at the time but The Sacrifice left the wrong kind of impression in gentle comparison with those two.

Due to the wonderful modern English phenomenon known as “the HMV sale” I decided that the price was finally right... err... I mean I decided the time had finally come to give The Sacrifice another chance and I’m so glad I did.

It’s a long film, most of Tarkovsky’s are, and nothing much really happens (as only Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Wim Wenders do best) but, like most of his films, it’s a reflective and meditative piece of visual poetry that poses questions and inundates the viewer with little truths (not facts, truths... see Raiders of the Lost Ark for a more forceful stated distinction between the two) and allows you to gradually feel the burden and consequences of the characters as they meet the quiet challenges which permeate the depths of their being.

In The Sacrifice, a retired actor who has become a writer is celebrating his birthday. Some of his family are there for his celebration and so too is the local postman who is a good friend and who turns out to be the shrewdest and most intelligent character of the movie... like a Shakespearean jester, you know he’s the one who really has his finger on the pulse of life. During the Birthday announcements a TV newsflash announces World War Three. It’s likely that everyone will be bombed to bits very soon and that the safest thing anyone can do is just stay at home. The TV then goes dead and the reality of the situation is forcefully punctuated by the sound of jets as they fly overhead and shake the house in their wake.

The writer prays to God, for the first time in his life to reverse this war and in return he will renounce his life and never talk to his family again, his sacrifice to avert disaster (the concept of a gift always being a sacrifice is referenced earlier by the postman character). Meanwhile, the postman tells the man he can divert disaster by sleeping with one of his cleaners... who also happens to be the local witch (in one of those wonderful and astonishing Tarkovsky magical moments, you see the writer and the witch sleeping together, levitating in the air above the bed). And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about what happens to this one because if movies like this float your boat... you won’t want to know what the writer does the next morning.

What I will say is that all of Tarkovsky’s work is visually astonishing and, on this one, he has Sven Nykvist, Bergmans cinematographer on the movie. So you can be sure the movie looks stunning.He also has a couple of Bergman’s regular actors... but in some ways that’s neither here nor there as Tarkovsky was never a slouch for getting the absolute best out of his raw materials on set. And you’d have to be a pretty amazing actor or crew member anyway to keep up with Tarkovsky’s style of shooting and editing. Like his other films the movie is put together mostly with takes/shots lasting between 5 and 15 minutes long. You have to be very rehearsed and very skilled to be able to pull this kind of stuff off I would imagine, especially when you are following characters who start off in one location at the beginning of a shot and end up somewhere completely different by the end of the shot.

There’s no Criterion edition of this one available as yet so I went for the excellent Artificial Eye DVD which is a two disc edition. I haven’t watched the second disc yet but it’s a movie about the making of the movie and of the harrowing rebuild and reshoot of the final sequence (which I shall not spoil here and leave you to discover for yourselves). I would also heartily recommend Artifical Eye’s excellent two disc edition - The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion.

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, I wouldn’t flinch at recommending his final movie to most serious film enthusiasts. I would say, however, that if you’re not used to Tarkovsky’s directorial style, you may want to start off your journey into the poetry of celluloid with one of his more accessible films like Solaris, Stalker or Mirror. Whatever you decide to do... don’t miss out on Tarkovsky... he’s one of the greats.


  1. Superb post! I want to see this film now. And many thanks for the bit of background on Tarkovsky too. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the kind comment. Yeah... I really hope you'll like it. Not the one I'd most recommend as a starting point for Mr. T!

  3. Thanks for the signpost to the journey into the poetry of celluloid. A very beautiful description of The Sacrifice. I've never seen it but now feel I would appreciate it better when I do see it. Also like the stand for reasonableness in film viewing. Every film can be seen as a human's work, even a work of art.

  4. Hey there. Thanks for that Bucko. Check out Solaris and Stalker first though.