If you (like me) do the vast majority of your movie viewing through Netflix Watch Instantly, and if you (like me) are inexpressibly-but-powerfully drawn to obscure, challenging, metaphysical magnum opera, then today is your lucky day:
Alexander, a retired professor who lives on a remote island, is planning to celebrate his birthday with his family and friends. A radio announcement declaring the start of World War III interrupts the festivities; warplanes can be heard passing overhead. Alexander bargains with God in an attempt to turn away these apocalyptic events, only to discover just how profoundly he must sacrifice in return.
I recommend this work with some trepidation — not because I consider it anything less than a masterpiece, but because it is highly challenging viewing, and Tarkovsky’s an unquestionably tough cinematic nut to crack.
His pacing can be maddeningly deliberate; his perspective almost infuriatingly clinical; his themes so densely philosophical that I am frequently compelled to pause his films while running quickly back through events/metaphysical discourses lest I lose track of them altogether. In short, there is no filmmaker — living or dead — who makes viewing feel more like work to me than Tarkovsky. But it is so very, very worthwhile. Incredibly rich and rewarding stuff.
The Sacrifice may well be the definitive example of his genius. From its mesmerizing opening credits — slowly scanning Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Adoration of the Magi” as Erbarme dich, mein Gott, (Have Mercy, My God) from Bach’s Matthäus-Passion plays in the background– to its final sequence, it is filled to bursting with its creator’s enigmatic musings on death, suffering, despair, sacrifice, fatherhood …and almost every other imaginable human emotion. Despite its (perhaps deliberate) inscrutability, I have come away from each subsequent viewing with the growing conviction that one could study and write about this work for the rest of one’s critical life.
And then, there’s the stylistic brilliance. At times Bergman-esque in its unrelentingly stark beauty (even down to the brilliant work of long-time Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist), it’s filled with moments that lodge in one’s subconscious and refuse to be shaken loose. As a Self-Appointed Cinematic Semi-Commentator (aka, film snob), I love to use the term “hypnotic,” and have assigned it with great profligacy in the past. But I can truthfully say that I consider no director more deserving of that term than Tarkovsky. (To reference a current filmmaker, he’s Malick-like…though I think it’s actually more accurate to say Terrence Malick is Tarkovsky-like. And even more accurate to call him “Tarkovsky-lite.” Yes, he’s that demanding.)
Few films have resulted in more thought-provoking conversations for me than this one, and its final moments have haunted me ever since I saw them for the first time. I promise that the labor of viewing will be richly rewarded for those who find his unique insights and abilities palatable. (Another guarantee: The penultimate scene is unlike anything you’ve ever seen …or are ever likely to see again.)
Give him a try, I beg you. I admit that he’s not for everyone, but he might be for you.
A Few Footnotes: Unbeknownst to everyone (including himself), Tarkovsky was dying of cancer while shooting this, his final film. Armed with this hindsight, its subject matter (and its dedication to his son) gives added power to its themes, particularly to its already-loaded title — though I cannot help but think that “The Offering” would be a more faithful (or perhaps a more accurate) translation.
This Public Service Announcement has been brought to you by another obscure, hypnotic Russian film that grapples with the questions of Life, Death, and God: Ostrov. OK, not really. But the two films are inextricably linked in my mind, with a middle term of Tarkovsky’s equally-masterful (and demanding) Andrei Rublev. A perfect Lenten double (or even triple) feature. With coffee.
Also, visit “Nostalghia.com.” It’s definitive.