The Sacrifice (1986) Turns 35 This Year!
Whoa, that’s my age! I’m as cool as an Andrei Tarkovsky movie!
The opportunity to watch older films doesn’t arise as much since I started Flickmetic back in ancient times, also known as 2020. That’s because there’s such an abundance of new, interesting material that graces the screen. That’s not necessarily a negative, but it does make it difficult to find the time to explore film history.
That’s why finding anniversaries is important. It gives me a reason to both watch and write about flicks from a bygone era, as I did with The Criminal Code. However, with that flick I waited until its actual 90th birthday but with The Sacrifice I’m being more forgiving and not adhering to a strict date; instead, I’m just celebrating it in an anniversary year. That’s partially because I don’t know if I’ll be able to carve out enough time in the future to do so and this, in particular, is one I didn’t want to miss.
I love Andrei Tarkovsky. Stalker is among the greatest films ever released, Ivan’s Childhood may be my favourite war movie and his filmography also includes classics such as The Mirror, The Steamroller and the Violin and Andrei Rublev–a film I respect more than I enjoy, admittedly. The Sacrifice is his swan song, as he died later that year. His talent is sorely missed.
The Sacrifice is about a group who learns about the beginning of World War 3, a catastrophic event that will inevitably cause an apocalypse. A man, understandably fearful and upset, attempts to make an agreement with God to forego the war and return life to a state of relative peace. So, yeah, a popcorn flick.
When discussing Andrei Tarkovsky and his oeuvre recently, my dear friend said that you have to “be wide awake” when delving into his filmography. I wholeheartedly agree with this and honestly, it’s one of the reasons I never recommend him to a certain demographic of movie fans. I won’t say casual because I think you can appreciate cinema in any number of ways, and frankly even with me, at the end of the day it’s up to a movie to entertain the audience. It can be as technically sound as a flick can be, but if I’m completely unenthused by what’s happening on screen that will matter very little.
You need to be wide awake during a Tarkovsky flick because it’s unlike what Hollywood often delivers, and The Sacrifice is no different. It’s full of long takes that linger more than they outright excite, but that’s a feature of his. Do I want every movie to have ten minute unbroken shots with subtle camera movement? No, of course not, but when Tarkovsky does it, sign me up.
That’s because he was a master of it. There have been films that flirted with his techniques, incorporating a random lengthy scene that implores you to admire it on a technical front. Often it’s rather impressive, but it’s a tangent rather than the central focus, whereas with The Sacrifice it’s splattered all over the screen. It works because he had a photographic eye and paid a lot of attention to not only the characters, but the framing and the environments surrounding them.
Simply put, his flicks were often gorgeous, and The Sacrifice accomplishes that too. Usually. This is where I lament a bit because while it undeniably deserves accolades, it doesn’t stand up the flicks that I mentioned earlier in this article. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t absolutely stunning scenes and locales, because saying that it doesn’t include those can be easily debunked by this picture:
By the way, this is the first scene post-opening credits.
It’s wonderful, but the quantity doesn’t compare to the buffet of imagery that we get to feast on with his better films. But saying that is slightly odd because The Sacrifice remains more beautiful than most of the films that one is likely to see. And, knowing that, what I’m about to say is even more strange: there’s not enough of it to stay compelling.
“But Tyler,” you say, “If it’s more beautiful than most of the films that I will likely see, and you’re still saying it’s not enough, how does that make sense?”
Well, the thing is, a Tarkovsky flick lives and dies on what he does visually, because his movies are usually a crawl rather than a sprint. Even if he occasionally has uninteresting characters or periodically goes too far with the philosophical musings and forgets the humanity that binds it all together, it’s often saved by the “holy shit” of what your eyes are indulging in.
The Sacrifice has some of the positives and negatives. He weaves intelligent conversations and hefty themes together, creating dialogue that makes you think and occasionally feel. But his characters are not fleshed out enough to get as invested as I would have liked, which makes some of the dialogue feel more hollow than it should. That’s where, generally, the cinematography and directorial brawn would save the writing. And it does… a large percentage of the time where the writing falters–but not always.
Perhaps the issue is with me because in my opinion his strength is wide-angle shots of landscapes and other areas. It’s not that he exclusively does that or that he films interiors poorly (he didn’t do anything poorly), but given the nature of The Sacrifice, there was focus on contained space than I remember there being in his prior films. Maybe I’m not remembering his films as vividly as I would like. After all, with the exception of Stalker I’ve only seen the others once and I have yet to get around to Solaris. Either way, keep in mind that it comes down to personal preference to some degree.
Along with the long takes comes other traditions of Tarkovsky, such as an efficient usage of different colours; whether that’s different hues or just blatantly turning a flick black-and-white to further a message. That’s all here, and even in his final days Tarkovsky was able to showcase his significant directorial prowess. But again, if a movie is going to expect almost two and a half hours of your time while also being glacial in its pacing, he needed to absolutely nail every moment; something he often did.
Ultimately, that’s really my only criticism, that it can dip into tedium and really test your awareness. I don’t want to come off like this is a prevalent problem within The Sacrifice because as you’ll note from my final rating below, I deeply enjoyed the flick and got a lot out of it. It’s just very mildly flawed.
Just ending this review with two people looking at you.
He, however, has seen Solaris and deems it one of Tarkovsky’s best.
THAT'S ENOUGH, GET TO THE SCORE
NOT A FILM FOR STUPID PEOPLE (SO WHY DID I WATCH IT?)
Upon release The Sacrifice proved, once again, that Tarkovsky is one of the greatest directors in the entire, storied history of film. It devolves into slight tedium once in a while but for the most part it demonstrates the same visual capability and intelligence that has made him so renowned.