Wednesday, May 24, 2017
I spent much of the day trying to think what to say about Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice that doesn't make me sound like an utter fool. The director is someone I admire, and his achievement in what was his last film, finished only months before his death, is in many ways extraordinary. But The Sacrifice leaves me cold and tempts me to sarcastic assessments like "art-house profundity," a rude and inadequate phrase that I might have used about the film if I didn't respect its maker so much. For The Sacrifice is unquestionably a visionary film, drawn from Tarkovsky's heart and soul. I just wish there were a little more brain holding heart and soul in check. Is it my habitual agnosticism that makes me bridle against the protagonist's quest for metaphysical certainty? The twentieth-century search for God produced masterworks like Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955), Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Tarkovsky's own Andrei Rublev (1966), and, most appropriate in this context, Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957). The Bergman connection suggests itself because Tarkovsky made his film in Sweden, with Bergman's frequent leading man Erland Josephson and Bergman's cinematographer Sven Nykvist, in a location, Gotland, that resembles the island of Fårö, the location of many of Bergman's own films. But The Sacrifice seems to me to take some of the worst aspects of some of Bergman's films -- the rather histrionic treatment of people's search for faith in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) -- and intensify it. Precipitating the crisis of The Sacrifice with the threat of nuclear holocaust warps the film away from psychological truth into didacticism. One of the reasons Andrei Rublev succeeds is that, like The Seventh Seal, it is set in an age of faith. Both films depict the essential downside to spiritual certainty -- bigotry and fanaticism and a loss of essential humanity -- while balancing it with a portrayal of the rewards of faith: kindness and creativity. As I said about The Seventh Seal, "Commentators have sometimes likened the plague that threatens the world of The Seventh Seal to the threat of nuclear annihilation, but I think that misses the point: For the medieval world, the Plague was a test of faith; for the modern world, the Bomb is a test of humanity." The Sacrifice, I think, misses that point. Moreover, I think Tarkovsky's style -- enigmatic, elliptical, deliberately obscure -- becomes a stumbling block in attempts to respond both emotionally and intellectually to the film. It even betrays a sympathetic critic like David Thomson into a distracting error, when he refers to Alexander's (Josephson) son, known in the film as "Little Man," as his grandson. By failing to make relationships among the characters more explicit -- Is Marta (Filippa Franzén) Alexander's daughter? What is her connection to the doctor, Victor (Sven Wollter)? -- Tarkovsky forces us to spend a lot of our attention on matters of simple identification, distracting us from what should be the central focus of the film. And what, exactly, is that?