Written & Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Alexander – Erland Josephson
Adelaide – Susan Fleetwood
Otto – Allan Edwall
Victor – Sven Wollter
Maria – Guorun Gisladottir
I’m about to do something very, very bad. So bad, in fact, it may be blasphemous. I’m about to skewer the final film of cinematic saint Andrei Tarkovsky. No, it’s not “Solaris,” which I patiently sat through many years ago as a college student, it’s his (kinda, sorta, almost) World War III drama “The Sacrifice.” While the sacred mission of The Monster Shack is to shovel up steaming loads of low-brow garbage, I think it’s necessary once in a while to shovel up some of the high-brow variety as well. Just to keep our Ying-yang balance healthy, if you know what I mean. And boy, do I have a candidate!
Celebrated by many as a masterpiece, it’s so slow, dark, and pompous it could be a Saturday Night Live parody. It’s the kind of movie that tells you, nay shouts at you, that something is profound by keeping the camera running. And running. And running! I swear, I could practically feel my fingernails growing in-between each edit. It’s excruciating, so let’s have a look! – If you don’t mind “sacrificing” some of your time, and maybe your sanity. Ha ha!
“The Sacrifice” starts on an impressively austere note with a Bach dirge played over
a somber and faded classical painting. Slowly, oh so slowly, the camera moves past dim images of miserable people scattered about in twisted poses that mean something profound. Up, up, into the murky gloom of a leafy tree. Never has foliage seemed so depressing. But at least the movie is being honest. It’s telling us, up front, just what we are in for. The long, slow camera pans across darkened rooms full of miserable people making stilted small talk. The long, rambling monologues about Man, God, and Truth. The murky and creepy “climax” that must be the most joyless miracle of redemption I’ve ever seen. And a final shot that mirrors the opening, with a
….a dead tree. And this dead tree is….a symbol of hope!!!!
That’s it in a nutshell, but trying to write a full plot recap is daunting – it would mean lots and lots of the following:
Alexander stares out the window of the darkened room towards the grey horizon. His wife walks in and sits down on a chair. Alexander says nothing. Several minutes pass before she says, “Why did you give up the theater?” Without looking at her he says, “What is the nature of truth?” He continues to look out the window as she sighs in her chair. Their friend Victor puts down his drink and says, “My day went out of control.” Slowly, the camera moves from a wide shot of the room to a close-up of the view out the window. Outside we can see a small and forlorn figure walking slowly across a muddy field. We watch this figure for about 5 minutes, before we fade to black.
We get TWO-AND-A-HALF-HOURS of that kind of stuff. I actually watched this movie in three or four stages, because I can only take so much before I want to scream. Although I should mention that at my last sitting I passed some sort of psychological boundary and started constantly giggling as the slow, gloomy passion play wound down to its bizarre finale. I probably sounded demented. No, a straight plot review would run to about 800 pages, so I won’t do that. What I came up with instead is 14 (long) bullet points. I chose 14 because that is the number of the traditional Stations of the Cross, and since this movie is not sci-fi, but an account of one man’s tortured religious quest/psychological breakdown, I thought that would be appropriate.
THE OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE MIRACLE
We open with a long shot of an older man named Alexander planting a dead tree on a Godforsaken stretch of Scandinavian coastline. (This movie was shot in Sweden, and all the dialogue is in Swedish.) With him is a very young boy he calls “Little Man,” who we learn is his son. (Note the PROFOUND implications of that nickname. That’s an order.) We stay far away, with the camera, as he tells his son a miracle story. Seems a medieval priest ordered a young cleric to water a dead tree at exactly the same time every day. The young man did this faithfully for 3 years, at which time it blossomed into life. This, says Alexander, shows how a system can change the world. (!?!)
THE POSTMAN, THE BIRTHDAY, AND GOD
Alexander keeps talking, with his little son as a mute audience. (We’ll soon learn he’s recovering from some sort of throat surgery, and can’t talk until he’s healed up. The PROFOUND implications of this are supposed to become clear as the movie progresses. But they never do. Take my word for it.) Otto the postman rides up on his bicycle and delivers a birthday card to Alexander. Here we learn that today is his birthday, and that he is a big cheese in the worlds of the theater and the university. Naturally, the two men fall into a discussion, about Alexander. Otto thinks Alexander is too gloomy, and it’s hard to argue with that. Otto also thinks that the universe repeats itself eternally. Alexander scoffs at this, and says that only God can apprehend Absolute Truth – though moments earlier he claimed not to believe in God.
HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE
Things kick into high gear when a car pulls up, and out comes Victor, the young doctor who operated on Little Man, and Adelaide, Alexander’s much younger wife. Victor is even gloomier than Alexander, and says that sociability is a “burden.” They drive off.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN SCANDINAVIA
Now that all those annoying people are gone, Alexander can get back to his gloomy ruminations on the horrible emptiness of a society based on Sin. Technically he’s talking to Little Man, but when the adorable little tike wonders off, he doesn’t notice it for some time. Not until his glum monologue becomes unbearable even to himself!
Worried, he starts looking for the little scamp, who picks that moment to sneak up behind him. Alexander freaks out and accidentally gives the kid a bloody nose. Little Man is OK, but Alexander is so traumatized he faints. And we get a black & white vision of a bombed and blasted city street.
We finally make it to the house, where Alexander takes comfort in some stiff and formal portraits of medieval saints. Victor talks about feeling like a failure in life. Alexander says he felt the same, until Little Man was born. (Oh Good Grief.) Meanwhile, Little Man’s mother, Adelaide acts like a shrew, thus indicating she’s unhappy in the marriage. Alexander ignores her.
STRANGE BUT TRUE!
Otto arrives on his bike with a birthday present – a map of 1600’s Europe. This naturally inspires a conversation on the nature of reality. This sets Otto off about his hobby of collecting stories that are true, but which have “no explanation.” He tells of a woman who had her photo taken. When it was developed everyone was amazed because her long dead son was also visible in it. (If only a theremin had started playing at this moment!)
A MYSTERIOUS ATTACK
Otto continues to get freakier. After his ghost-photo story he falls down in some sort of mysterious fit. When he recovers he says that an evil angel touched him! Everyone continues to be very polite to him. Then they are distracted when the house starts to rumble and we hear jets fly low overhead. A large bowl of milk crashes to the floor! Awful, of course, but there’s no use crying over… oh, never mind.
Outside, in a black & white world, Alexander finds a small model house sitting in the mud. Maria, the spooky young Icelandic chick he hires as a maid walks up and he asks her about it. This seems to trigger some sort of repressed emotional crisis in her, and they have a hilariously fraught conversation, complete with tragic faces and many dramatic pauses. The dire backstory of the mysterious model house is that… Little Man… made it… for him… as… a… birthday present! After dropping that bombshell she leaves the dumbfounded Alexander and walks off, tragically, over a muddy field. We watch her go a good 100 to 200 yards before Takovsky has pity on us and fades, slowly, to black.
Back in the house, Otto the postman is freaking out at a Leonardo de Vinci painting. He thinks it’s sinister. In fact, he’s always been terrified of Leonardo! He scampers off leaving Alexander alone with the sinister image. (If only a theremin had played at this point!)
A ghostly and depressed voice comes from a TV in another room. It’s a public announcement calling for calm. The announcer adds that they are safer where they are than anywhere else in Europe, so we assume World War III has just broken out. Then the TV goes dead, and everyone just sits there.
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we don’t feel fine.
Finally, perhaps acting as a representative for the audience, Adelaide has a proper meltdown and screams for someone, anyone, to just DO SOMETHING! As her fit goes on and on, and we see all of it, Alexander wonders off to another room. He leaves it to Victor to deal with her, and he injects her with a sedative. Perhaps I should mention here that it’s implied Adelaide is boinking Victor. (Poor Susan Fleetwood, who played Athena in Ray Harryhausen’s “Clash of the Titans,” really gives this scene her all. But she’s sabotaged because Adelaide is a grating character whose main function is to make gloomy, pedantic, self-absorbed Alexander look sympathetic.)
Alexander goes off and looks at the ocean. Back at his house, alone in his room, he has his own breakdown, and pleads with God to spare the people he loves. Tearing up and looking directly into the camera he offers to give up everything – if only God will forgive the world for not believing in him. (The celebrated actor Erland Josephson is very good in this scene.)
WHAT THE POSTMAN SAID (Pssst – it’s dirty.)
Otto is back, freakier than ever. Coming inside he whispers to Alexander there’s one last chance to save the world. Alexander has to go over to the house of Maria, the spooky young Icelandic chick. Once there he needs to “know” her. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) He adds, helpfully, that she is a witch! For a long time Alexander pretends not to know what Otto is talking about, but…..
THE JOYLESSNESS OF SEX
…He eventually rides over to her dark and forlorn house. When much anguished confession and a weird story about his mother fails to seduce her, Alexander points a gun at his own head and threatens to kill himself. Freaked out, the spooky young chick relents. Exclaiming what a poor darling he is, and how much his family has hurt him (she knows what he wants to hear!) she starts undressing him and they have some tragic pity sex. As they do so, they start to float gracefully over the bed – sort of like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” Then we hear Alexander’s anguished voice saying, “I can’t. No. No. No.” (Is this the nightmare of a gay man forced to undergo “Conversion Therapy?”)
Gentlemen, we have lift off!
THE REMAINS OF THE BIRTHDAY
Thankfully, Alexander wakes up on his couch. You see, IT WAS ALL A DREAM! This isn’t a complete surprise, as Alexander kept having black & white visions of bombed out streets or running crowds. But still, Booo!
Just kidding! We won’t get off the hook that easily.
While Alexander realizes he was only dreaming about the end of the world, he is not comforted. So he waits till everyone is out of the house, and then burns it down. – Thus saving the world from World War III…Of course his friends and family run up and start screaming and crying and wailing and falling into the mud. And if you ask me, that’s a pretty lousy way to say “thank you.”
HERE WE GO AGAIN
Little Man is unaware that his father has just burned down his home, and is now being carted off to the loony bin. Maybe that’s why he is so calm as he waters the dead tree they planted earlier (oh dear Lord!). He lies down under it and, looking up at the dead branches, he speaks! Which is a miracle, right? “In the beginning, there was the word,” he intones. Then he asks, “Why is that, papa?” – Papa’s in no shape to answer, of course, and I’m curious how complacent Little Man will be once he learns that everything he owns has just gone up in smoke. (Actually, his room was so depressingly austere it made the Devil worshippers’ apartment in “Rosemary’s Baby” look cheerful, so maybe he won’t mind!)
I’ll also note that hovering in the near distance is the problematic figure of WOMAN, as embodied by Maria, the spooky Icelandic chick. All the other adults are still focused on the burning house – the materialistic fools! But she keeps her eye on the ball and stares hungrily at Little Man. Finally, she reluctantly gets on her bicycle and rides off. Sort of like a sexualized version of the horrible Miss. Gulch in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Is she a good sex-witch, or a bad sex-witch? Maybe both! EEEEEEK!
Sean Ledden (September 2014)
P.S. – Three years from now that kid is going to need a good therapist.
What to say, but OMG!!! After two-and-a-half hours of suffering and sermonizing the best Takovsky can offer is “Why is that, papa?” I want to KILL him! Alas, the poor guy is already dead. He was very ill with lung cancer when he made this, his last film. And because of that I want to be sympathetic – but what a load self-indulgent crap! Where do I start? There’s the fact that Alexander, who is clearly a stand-in for Tarkovsky, keeps projecting his own faults, fears, and general unhappiness onto the world at large. His monologues are just a way for Tarkovky to lecture the audience, and I hate that. Then there’s the sexism. Women mean sex and Mommie issues. Intellectual engagement is only for other men. (Alexander, I understand why your wife is cheating on you!) Finally, it’s the way Tarkovsky uses miracles to prove God exists – only there aren’t any miracles in the movie. That’s not the complex ambiguity of art, but bad faith and a lack of nerve. And to think this won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Ack!
I’ll wrap this up with an amusing if painful story about the making of the movie. The long cut where the house burns down is actually very impressive. The camera pans one way, and then the other following the complex choreography of the actors who run around screaming while the house burns. Done for real in the days before CGI, the viewer can’t help but be engrossed, and I gave the actors a round of applause after I watched it. I mean, they only had one shot at it, right? But Wikipedia tells me that they had to do this scene twice. The first time Tarkovsky only had one camera, over the protests of his legendary cinematographer Sven Nyqvist. Well, wouldn’t you know it, that one camera got its film jammed, and the shot was ruined. Ouch! They had to take two weeks to rebuild the house from scratch, at great cost, and then go through the whole ordeal again. The lesson of this story is – listen to your DP!