From time to time, our “variety is the spice of fascism’ motto brings up some laugh-out-loud classics, and also some pensive serious movie choices. Comrade Adam showed us that for every “King of Kong” there is a “Wings of Desire”. Founder Becca mixed “When Harry Met Sally” with “Holy Motors”. With this in mind, and offering to host last-minute at Comrade Di’s request, I took a gamble and chose a film that is critically hailed as a landmark film, but that I had never seen before. Flicking through my DVD collection, I thought that The Sacrifice would tick these boxes, and be a great contrast to recent tales of teenage coming-of-age, poisoned apples, and quirky sea-faring adventures that we had seen lately. And seemingly, I wasn’t wrong…
But before I even attempt to discuss some musings we had on the The Sacrifice, I should welcome our new recruit Comrade Lisa! As the thunder smashed down on London on our Monday Night small gathering, it certainly must have been a baptism of fire with the choice of film!
The Sacrifice is the final film by director Andrei Tarkovsky. He has been described as “the most significant figure in all of postwar Soviet cinema”. Having started his career in the USSR, he travelled to Italy and the UK in 1979-81 where he thought about defecting from Soviet Union. His son and wife remained there, so he decided against this. However, when the Soviet authorities prevented his film Nostalghia winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, he resolved to never work in the Soviet Union again.
He spent most of 1984 preparing the film The Sacrifice. At a press conference in Milan on 10 July 1984, he announced that he would never return to the Soviet Union and would remain in Europe. At that time, his son Andrei Jr. was still in the Soviet Union and not allowed to leave the country. When it was discovered that Tarkovsky was dying of lung cancer, his son was allowed to join him. Premiered at Cannes half a year before its director’s death, The Sacrifice is often called a last testament. Tarkovsky completed it knowing he had terminal cancer, and he dedicated it to his son “with hope and confidence.”
Tarkovsky made deliberate, cryptic films that dealt with such intangibles as the mysteries of existence, the contradictions of faith, the power of art and the passing of time.
The Sacrifice unfolds in the hours before a nuclear holocaust. It is centred on Alexander, a retired actor who is celebrating his birthday with family and friends in a remote house on a desolate Swedish island. Sudden low-flying jet planes break the quiet gathering, and a crackling TV emergency broadcast warns of an imminent nuclear catastrophe, of which there can be no escape. Alexander makes a promise to God that he will sacrifice all he holds dear, if the disaster can be averted. The next day dawns, and as if in a dream, everything is restored to normality. But Alexander must keep his vow.
To attempt to discuss how this is shown on the screen would do the film a disservice. But suffice to say, it was full of very deep focus, long takes and beautiful vistas. The grey tonality would just soften to sepia tones with the turning on of a lamp. Actors are often seen in the distance, with a very stationary camera and very little editing. In fact, there are only 115 shots in the entire 2h 20min film. The film is rife with religious iconography (especially the painting Adoration of the Magi), philosophical conversation (including Nietzsche directed at a 6 year old boy), and many profound quotes about religion and loss of faith, the paranormal, modernity and industrialism, loss of the human infinity with nature and losing the sense of self.
The director himself had this to say “I wanted to show that one can resume life by restoring the union with oneself and by discovering a spiritual source. And to acquire this kind of moral autonomy, where ones ceases to consider solely the material values, where one escapes from being the subject article of experimentation between the hands of society- a way- among others- is having the capacity to offer oneself in sacrifice.”
But what did we humble MNFC-ers find within all the multi-layering that we were presented with? Well, Comrade Lisa felt it was like watching a painting, Comrade Jess felt it was like watching a Chekov play. And Sam gleamed themes of innocence and rebirth. And my own researching for this review shows that many professional filmy types found these things too.
We also discussed how technically hard it must be to do a long take like that in film, esp with final scene (no spoilers!) – interestingly this had to be filmed on a second take and started from scratch, when the film jammed on the first take.
We all felt that we settled into the long-scene slowed-pace after feeling very weird at start. But we also discussed that without rapid editing, does it slow the pace too much? Being unable to see the actors faces etc, does this actually offer you less empathy and emotion? And despite Tarkovsky’s intention to give the viewer the sense of time passing, does it in fact slow time down and become too sedate? If anyone is looking for answers, and for a detailed review of the film, look here.
Interestingly, there is a subculture of film called “Cinema of the Slow”. This is often seen in loggerheads to more populist film making (e.g. in The Bourne Ultimatum, the average length of a shot is 2 seconds. The longest shot in The Sacrifice is 9 minutes 26 seconds). The Guardian’s discussion of this here is very interesting and worth a read. I can’t help agree that the fast pace of life now, with it’s constant distractions and preoccupations, has been absorbed into cinema also. Films like The Sacrifice seem uncomfortable in their editing, and stand out against the cinematic tricks evolved over the last 100 years designed to speed up story telling, hold audience attention, convey emotion and involve the viewer. The counter argument for the slowing of things making them far more beautiful and powerful is seen here: click here and hear Justin Bieber like never before.
So, did we actually “like” the film or not? Our chin stroking suggested that the Jury’s out. “Like”, probably not. “Enjoy” – unsure. But certainly we were challenged, inspired, exhausted, intrigued, and all agreed that this is the sort of film you want to find out more about. Perhaps this is the sign of a truly great film – one that gives you more and more each time you watch it. The Sacrifice certainly does this… but probably one that I won’t watch again just yet…
The final word should go to Roger Egbert, who sums up the film perfectly:
“The Sacrifice” is not the sort of movie most people will choose to see, but those with the imagination to risk it may find it rewarding. Everything depends on the ability to empathise with the man in the movie, and Tarkovsky refuses to reach out with narrative tricks in order to involve us. Some movies work their magic in the minds of the audience; this one stays resolutely on the screen, going about its urgent business and leaving us free to participate only if we want to.
That is the meaning of a sacrifice, isn’t it – that it is offered willingly?
Until the next time,
Words, words, words. If only we could shut up and write the Tuesday Review.