03 October 2006

Offret (The sacrifice)
(Sweden – 1986)
directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

It seems to be the opinion of some reviewers that Offret (The sacrifice) be termed ‘Tarkovsky light’. This film – the great Russian director’s final work – is certainly more accessible than his others, more straightforward in its storytelling…but there are plenty lot of wonderful elements involved, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be relegated to any sort of ‘minor works’ category. Other reviewers have also drawn comparisons between this film and the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman – there is some of Bergman’s ‘look’ to the film, perhaps because Tarkovsky chose to use Sven Nykvist as his cinematographer, who worked on several of Bergman’s films.

Even with this Bergmanesque presence, this is definitely Tarkovsky’s film – and if it’s more accessible than some of his others, perhaps it’s a good place for someone who is unfamiliar with his work to start.

Several of Tarkovsky’s favorite themes are present in Offret – alienation, an aching emptiness of the spirit, the slighting of nature by mankind. Erland Josephson portrays Alexander, a wealthy, semi-retired writer who lives with his wife, teenage stepdaughter and ‘Little Man’, his young son, in a lovely house that sits rather isolated on the seaside in Sweden. His son is obviously his favorite, the center of his soul and existence. We see him with the little boy (who is apparently recovering from some sort of surgery, perhaps to have his tonsils removed), planting a tree, telling him a story about devotion to duty involving a young Japanese monk and his master.

Alexander’s birthday is at hand, and his family, along with a couple of friends, makes ready to celebrate. As the group waits for dinner to be served, there is a roaring – like a low-flying jet – in the sky, followed by what appears at first to be a mild earthquake. A ceramic milk pitcher vibrates its way off a shelf, shattering on the floor – news broadcasts on the television seem to indicate that World War III has begun. Each of the characters reacts in their own way – Alexander’s wife falls to pieces and requires a sedative from their friend Victor, a doctor.

Alexander is shaken as well – but he’s not sure what to do. He has lost his faith several years before, and yet he finds himself begging God to reverse the horrible events unfolding on the television screen. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, we see him drained of strength, falling on his knees, barely able to speak, praying with all his might. He attempts to ‘strike a bargain’ with God, offering to give up everything – his home, his belongings, his family…even Little Man, his beloved son, if the world can be ‘put back like it was before’.

In a conversation with his friend Otto, the local postman (and more that a little eccentric), Alexander learns of Otto’s suspicion that Maria, one of Alexander’s servant girls, is a witch – and Otto suggests that if Alexander goes to Maria and sleeps with her, she could use her powers to reverse the horrible events. In his desperation, Alexander succumbs to Otto’s suggestion – he never voices his request to Maria, but she sees the pain in his eyes (and in his actions) and takes him to her bed in an attempt, I think, simply to comfort him. This scene – like lovemaking scenes in all of Tarkovsky’s films, when they occur – is photographed beautifully and tastefully. Tarkovsky never stooped to gratuitous or graphic sex or nudity. We see the couple lie down, embrace – and levitate, floating gently into the air, a lovely, tender visual rendition of the healing power of love.

The film ends with a sequence that pushed the time limits of cinematography almost to the breaking point, involving a fire which destroys Alexander's house. Tarkovsky insisted on shooting the take using only one camera, and as proof that the infamous Mr. Murphy is at work in all parts of the globe, the camera malfunctioned, and the film was unusuable. The house was reconstructed completely (at least as far as one can see from the outside), and the shot was re-done, this time with two cameras running, with complete success. This and other great information can be found in the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, included in this release as a bonus item.

Tarkovsky's book Sculpting in time is a wonderful read for any film buff wanting to get inside the mind of a great director. As one can see in viewing all of his work, he was a big believer in allowing time to play itself out before the viewer, without artificial compression. It's just one aspect of his art that makes his work so memorable and unique.

You’ll have to see the film in order to find out if Alexander’s efforts – in either course of action – are rewarded. I don’t want to spoil anything for the potential viewer. Suffice to say that even as the film ends, the viewer is left with as many questions as answers – and that’s one of the things I find so stimulating and rewarding about Tarkovsky’s work: you'll find yourself thinking about it long after the screen goes dark, pondering what you've witnessed. As with all of his films, it reveals more and more with repeated viewing...it's a bit like peeling off the layers of an onion.

I can’t give any film I’ve seen by Tarkovsky anything less than my highest recommendation – and while some might feel that this final work isn’t on the same levels as his other films, it’s still head and shoulders above the commercial films coming out of the major studios. His work is infinitely rewarding for me as a viewer, and never disappoints.

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