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The Sacrifice

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The Sacrifice

Kino Lorber DVD and Blu-ray

Though it seems like a bad dream now, it wasn’t so long ago that people lived with the knowledge/belief that nuclear war and the end of the world could happen any day, with no more warning than the time it took authorities to detect the ICBMs zooming over from the other side of the planet. That terrible shadow looms over The Sacrifice, the final film from Soviet auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, out now in new DVD and Blu-ray editions.

Released in 1986, still in the prime of the Cold War, the film centers on aging Swedish intellectual Alexander (Erland Josephson), whose family and friends gather at his remote seaside home to celebrate his birthday. Their upper-middle-class idyll is interrupted by the scream of jets and fragments of ominous news; it sounds like the end. Brought low by desperate, gasping fear, Alexander attempts a deal with God: Spare his family and put the world back the way it was and he will destroy his own world and cut himself off from everything he holds dear. And God takes him up on that bargain. Or does he?

Tarkovsky built a reputation as one of the titans of 20th-century world cinema on the basis of works such as Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and The Mirror, films molded by his stately visual language and by his interest in the deepest questions of being, faith, connection, and inspiration. The Sacrifice, which Tarkovsky made while ill with terminal cancer, plumbs the profound as well. It’s difficult to think of a film in which more of the dialogue is whispered, much less prayed, as Alexander wrestles with philosophical issues while enjoying the countryside with his young son before facing the prospect of his son’s death (and everyone else’s) and “giving him up” if only it would save the world. What Alexander comes to believe will turn back the world’s fate would likely sound preposterous in print, especially without the somnolent spell Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (longtime collaborator of the director’s idol, Ingmar Bergman) weave with their long shots, long takes, and Scandanavian half-light. (The release includes the making-of documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky on a bonus disc.) But when it comes time to keep the bargain, the choice for Alexander is real, the consequences devastating.

The Sacrifice lacks the sweep and clarity of Andrei Rublev, the radical vision of Stalker, or the intensely personal poetics of The Mirror, and its fiercest partisans are perhaps too swayed by its status as Tarkovsky’s final statement. But few directors, upstarts or old masters, ever make a film so exquisitely crafted or so concerned with the central chambers of the human soul.

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