Cinema: End-of-the- World Blues the Sacrifice

Directed and Written by Andrei Tarkovsky

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They could be Eugene O'Neill's soul-wizened Tyrones, or an extended Chekhovian family chatting its way toward collapse, or the Ewings under sedation. And Tarkovsky is happy to display them in their dolors, at his pace, with all the spare majesty of his style. In the morning, Alexander celebrates his birthday by planting a tree with his son -- an ordinary bucolic tableau, captured in a ravishing shot that lasts almost ten minutes. That afternoon, when the daughter playfully balances a pear on the doctor's knee, it seems a daring bit of coquetry; nothing more need be revealed. Then at night Alexander hears a radio report of an imminent World War III. He rushes downstairs; a sonic burst sets the house reverberating; a pitcher of milk tumbles slowly from its cabinet and breaks on the floor. Alexander snaps too.

And here The Sacrifice strips gears and revs into a kind of controlled delirium. It embraces elements of old-dark-house melodramas (a creaking door, a dead phone) and French farce (Alexander sneaking down a ladder for a late- night tryst). Yes, the end of any world, even this desiccated one, can be both spooky and funny. And so is Alexander's unshakable belief, stoked by Otto, that the fate of the planet depends on his "lying with" the ethereal Maria. Is she Eve or Lilith, Mary or Mary Magdalene? Or just a maid who understands that even a dotty master deserves the rite-of-last-night? Like any man trying to take any woman to bed, Alexander offers her a two-faced come-on: If we make love we can create a new world; if we don't make love I'll kill myself. Out of sympathy, she accedes to his plea, and their bed revolves and rises, sharing their forced ecstasy.

Earlier that night, this Father Abraham of the apocalypse had vowed to surrender his beloved son if God would only restore everything to its earlier state of blessed torpor. And come morning, all is restored, in spades. Mama is whining, Daughter is pouting, Doctor is leaving. The world may not be ending, but theirs is -- with a whimper. For Alexander, the only rational response is to go crazy. He carefully sets the house afire and (in a wondrous 6 1/2-min. shot) runs about the grounds, eluding his family until he is carted off in an ambulance, and the gutted house collapses. Each nuclear family detonates its own nuclear catastrophe.

The Sacrifice ends on a note of desperate hope: that every birth means a new genesis. As the ambulance careers by, Little Man waters his father's tree. He relaxes under it and says, "In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?" It is a poignant query, a heroic response, especially since the speaker is not only this Little Man but also Tarkovsky -- a man who has virtually offered up his life in the sacrifice to make, not good movies, but great films. In The Sacrifice, the cryptic Tarkovsky style helps create a towering cathedral.

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