Combustible Celluloid
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With: Erland Josephson, Susan Fleetwood, Tommy Kjellqvist, Allan Edwall, Gudún S. Gísladóttir, Sven Wollter, Valérie Mairesse, Filippa Franzún
Written by: Andrei Tarkovsky
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: French, Swedish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 149
Date: 05/09/1986

The Sacrifice (1986)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Nuclear Family

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Andrei Tarkovsky was dying while making this, his final feature, and that feeling of finality permeates the entire film. Alexander (Erland Josephson) is a journalist, philosopher and retired actor who celebrates a birthday with friends and family. At some point, it is announced that nuclear war has begun. Alexander prays, saying he would give up everything for the war not to have started. He sleeps, and his neighbor Otto -- who collects ghost stories and other weird tales -- tells him that if he visits another neighbor, Alexander's maid Maria (Gudún S. Gísladóttir) and makes love with her, he can stop the war. (Apparently she's a witch.)

Tarkovsky punctuates this so-called "plot" with many, many stunningly poetic images, mostly filmed in long takes with delicate tracking shots. The opening shot, showing Alexander and his son planting a tree followed by a long philosophical discussion deliberately and intelligently clashes with the more frantic, more meaningless closing shot. The film is almost a springboard for all those last, fleeting ideas that Tarkovsky had roiling around in his head. It's tough going, but indelible and overwhelming.

Kino last released The Sacrifice on DVD back in 2000, and though it's watchable, it doesn't quite do justice to the beauty of this film. The 2011 remastered DVD, and a new Blu-Ray, look much crisper and put the poetry back in this film. It's available on a single-disc DVD set with the movie only, or a double-disc set that also includes the 1988 documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (99 minutes). The second disc also includes trailers for other Kino releases and galleries.

In 2018, Kino Lorber offered an even better, 4K restoration of The Sacrifice, and it's extremely impressive, with a soft, filmic texture and striking clarity. This set still includes the aforementioned documentary (on a second disc, a DVD), but it also includes an audio commentary by Layla Alexander-Garrett, Tarkovsky's translator on the set of the film, and an interview with Michal Leszczylowski, editor of The Sacrifice and director of the documentary, plus trailers for this and Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. Finally, Robert Bird contributes a liner notes essay.

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