By the time he began directing The Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky knew he had lung cancer that would likely be fatal. Because of this, it’s particularly odd that he chose to make what he knew would be his last film with a cast and crew that’s an obvious homage to Ingmar Bergman. Set in Sweden and collaborating with Erland Josephson and Sven Nykvist, it’s a tribute that draws obvious parallels between the two artists while still placing thick divisions between the two and in particular their religious and moral dimensions.
Josephson stars as an intellectual who is visited by his family for his birthday. But midway through, the celebration is interrupted by jets passing overhead and a news flash that nuclear bombs are being deployed and WWIII has begun. Frightened at the impending end of the world, Josephson asks God to deliver the world from this fate and in return, he promises to make a sacrifice. Soon he finds out that a servant at the house is reputed to be a witch who will grant a wish made while sleeping with her, and after doing so he finds the world is the way it was before. His answer to this is to set his house on fire.
After a lyrical introduction, The Sacrifice is in fact too indebted to Bergman for its own good. Actors move stiffly and are awkwardly blocked, with familiar arguments and emotions encircling the family. When the nuclear threat is announced, though, Tarkovsky takes over and allows his own voice to enter the picture. His concern, as always, for both personal psyches and our metaphysical place in the universe delivers a profound answer to the inherent solipsism of dying. The few insecurities in the filmmaking, which stick out in contrast to his Russian works, are easily overlooked by how masterful other scenes are and the impressiveness of the imagery.
The question of why Tarkovsky made the picture a Bergman homage seems less to do with Bergman in particular than it is about devotion to the art he loved in general. Images of Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi and Russian Icons abound in the picture but they’re all destroyed with Josephson’s house. For Tarkovsky, filmmaking was an inherently religious act and his devotion is part and parcel with the work, but more important than the art itself is the faith it represents. Before The Sacrifice’s credits roll, Josephson’s son Little Man goes out to water a dead tree because his father told him that if he continued, in time it would grow again. Josephson is now gone, as Tarkovsky himself would soon be, but regardless of the destruction wrought by his father Little Man continues watering and keeps his father’s faith alive. It’s a stirring scene and a powerful way for one of the greatest filmmakers to end his final movie.