Andrey Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice (1986), finds the filmmaker in exile in Ingmar Bergman country: making a film with one of Bergman’s actors, Erland Josephson; his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist; and more-than-a-little feel of a Bergman movie. Even so, the final result is clearly a Tarkovsky film, no matter the influence. And, yes, it’s at least close to being a great film. It’s a film that lingers in the mind—not in the least because it’s so open to interpretation. But having said that, I’ll also say that I did not find watching it a pleasant experience, nor am I all that certain I like having it linger in my mind. Both are reactions that might have pleased Tarkovsky, and both are quite possibly exactly what you might expect when you blend Russian gloom with Swedish gloom. The film made me uneasy almost at once, though that may be partly due to the fact that I knew I was watching a movie made by a man who knew he was dying. The story—if it can be called that—is about a birthday gathering for a reclusive intellectual (Josephson). There’s an air of something not quite right about everything, which turns out to be true at the moment when jet planes fly low over the isolated house, causing a pitcher of milk to crash to the floor. This is the moment where the film starts being very open to interpretation. Suddenly, the color is drained from the film and we find the characters poised for nuclear annihilation from impending WWIII. The actions become stranger, the events darker, the sense of reality more and more elusive—and the question arises as to whether any of this is actually happening. The film never answers this, nor does the last section where things appear to have returned to normal (and to more saturated color). For that matter, these last scenes are just as unsettling as those that precede it—something not dispelled by Tarkovsky’s hopeful dedication at the very end. It may well be a masterpiece, but it’s not one I’d care to look at too often. As one character notes of the unfinished DaVinci seen in the film, there’s something sinister about it.
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