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Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) – A Personal Glimpse at Death

What David Bowie’s final LP Blackstar must’ve meant to him is likely what Tarkovsky’s final picture The Sacrifice must’ve meant to him too.

Philosophy is tiring. Andrei Tarkovsky, the um… *ahem* philosophy connoisseur, seems exhausted of his own endless babbling, as he nears closer and closer to death. He’s gone full-on nihilistic, agonistic-mode on his audience, pumping out the most cynical of his fervent pieces yet. The fear of death: perfectly expressed by one movie, The Sacrifice.

The plot to this film faintly reminds me of these old cartoons I used to watch about heaven and hell or life and death, the ones from like the 1930s and 40s that seriously had no filter in scaring the s**t out of me as a child. Of course, it’s difficult to explain without spoilers, but there’s a sort of savage fairytale adventure involved in them where moral redemption is utilized to make up for a tragic situation that the story puts its focused character in. The Sacrifice is almost like these tales, using surreal devastation to compel its characters into tight decisions. However, in these animated accounts, characters normally learn from their mistakes, and return to glory; in The Sacrifice, redemption is replaced for egotistical madness.

The Sacrifice’s midway lighting change from bright colors to strobe-light dimness was one of the grandest transitions in tone I’ve ever witnessed. The final house shot is like the ultimate non-birthday birthday present for the obsessive cinephile. Plus, again, cinematography: OFF THE CHAIN. Some may find Tarkovsky’s hefty weight of dialogue, nonetheless, in The Sacrifice, even compared to his previous entries, to be off-putting. Some may even find his tributes to pieces of his past work like a “floating sequence” that’s unapologetically ripped out of Mirror to appear redundant, but in consideration that The Sacrifice is his last motion picture, it makes sense that the man would lumber down this route.

If there really is a strict code of reason in this world, who are we to know how to follow it? With spoken or written destinies, prophesies, and antiquities existing directly at our hands and ears, who’s to say that what we witness isn’t false, considering what we read or hear is usually resourced from others like us, others just as unknowing as us. For Alexander, he must decide. Should he try to save the world with a divine sacrifice, or should he unconsciously pretend to save the world with this sacrifice? Who’s to say what moments actually meant something in our extensive lives, and what moments didn’t, if any at all?

At the apple core of The Sacrifice, however, the fear of death is presented quite proudly. Alexander’s family must accept the end of their world, and look back onto the life that they had. If life was repeatable, would we experience the same life we had before? If we were to alternate the life we had previous to this reincarnation, wouldn’t that suggest we were not satisfied with the life we had before?

How about religion? Why do we choose to focus on something spiritual when there is a physical presence of the world right in front of us? In end of the world scenarios, do you think we would be more focused on how the spiritual side of things will perceive our demise, like how Alexander aches to assure that no God would want to punish him by establishing a sacrifice as his offering? Or, will we be finally concerned with the marks we had left on the physical implants of our planet; the planet we are, in fact, about to leave, as that is what we often believe death to insinuate? It seems though, realistically, that as we begin to near death, we choose to be cautionary, remembering that there could be a possibility that our beliefs were false all along. Whether or not we believe in God, some may be so afraid of death that they’re willing to at least pretend He or She is real during their final moments, just in case. This is the history of fear; it often leads us to compromise our dignity. 

And, that leads me to what I think Tarkovsky is trying to say here. No spoilers, but the conclusion to me is him essentially saying that “in the end, we’ll never know.” Our self-centered yearnings to embrace death with awareness may or may not pay off; it’s as simple as that. The ending of The Sacrifice is ambiguous in plot for this very reason.

So, yes, there are a whole lotta questions and a whole lotta thinking to be had in The Sacrifice, indeed. All in all, Tarkovsky ending off his career with a near tour de force? No surprise here. Tarkovsky’s obsession with water leakages is beginning to remind me of Tarantino’s obsession with feet at this point though…

Verdict: A

Andrei Tarkovsky Ranked

“The Sacrifice” is now available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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