To see The Sacrifice after a junk-food diet of Hollywood movies is like ducking out of a carnival to visit a medieval crypt. You are pulled out of time and into a sacred stillness. The images, handsomely sculpted, address themes of life and death and life after death. Gods and gargoyles hover in the cramped air, dwarfing all human anxieties. Man is a mite here, pitiable in his ignorance of what matters, or else vainglorious in his quest to find the answers to riddles beyond his solving.
This is the mood in Solaris, Mirror and the other sanctuaries erected over the past quarter-century by Andrei Tarkovsky. The pleasures these films admit are rarefied: the meticulous placing of actors and objects in a frame, the charged and stately grace of a camera movement, the surreal images from someone else's dream. Yet you should also feel the spectacular unity of vision and visuals, of passion and method. Compared with The Sacrifice's art, the formal sophistication of even the best Hollywood movies seems superficially applied, like press-on nails and a styling gel.
The Sacrifice is only the seventh feature film in a career that began with the lyrical, prize-laden My Name Is Ivan (1962). Tarkovsky was just 30 then, the son of a renowned Soviet poet and the rising sun of the Soviet film establishment -- a cinema Yevtushenko. But soon his artistic intransigence and the supposed obscurity of his themes nettled the bureaucracy that financed his films. The epic Andrei Rublev, completed in 1966, was not released in the U.S.S.R. until 1971; Solaris (1972), based on the Stanislaw Lem novel, suffered official censure; the lusciously enigmatic Mirror (1978) and Stalker (1979) sealed Tarkovsky's fate as a picturemaker on the way out. Within a few years, he was. He went to Italy to make Nostalghia (1983), about a Russian estranged from his homeland, and to Sweden for The Sacrifice with Ingmar Bergman Stalwarts Erland Josephson and Cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Tarkovsky now lives in Paris, ailing from cancer.
So it is not surprising that at the twilight of his life, this introspective artist should imagine the last flash of the last night of everybody's life -- the end of the world -- on film. The Sacrifice comprises 24 hours in the lives of eight people at a secluded summer house. The upstairs quartet is Alexander (Josephson), a former actor who now teaches aesthetics; his English wife (Susan Fleetwood); a grown daughter (Filippa Franzen); and an adored son called Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). In various levels of the servant class are two maids, Julia (Valerie Mairesse) and Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir); Victor (Sven Wollter), a handsome doctor who attends the illnesses and neuroses of this frazzled family; and Otto (Allan Edwall), a postman who spouts Nietzsche, and will goad Alexander toward the starring role in a holocaustic farce-tragedy.