The Sacrifice, which writer-director Andrei Tarkovsky calls ‘as Russian a film as any other made by me,’ is primarily a Swedish production with Swedish dialog. It takes place in and around a house on the desolate and marshy coastal plains of a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea adjacent to the Soviet Union. Although decidedly overlong, the doomsday film is Tarkovsky’s most generally accessible work.
Film concerns a middle-aged intellectual, Alexander (Erland Josephson), whose birthday dinner is interrupted by what is obviously the nuclear Big Bang, although it is seen (an icy light followed by near darkness) rather than heard. A mailman (Allan Edwall), of philosophical bent and knowledge, advises him to go sleep with a local witch and use her innocence to seek atonement for the sins of mankind.
Alexander follows the mailman’s advice. But first he sinks to his knees and promises God to leave behind all his worldly possessions, including his young and cherished son, if the world may be allowed, so to speak, another lease on life. Alexander burns down his own house. He is considered looney by the survivors and is taken away, destined for the nuthouse.
All Tarkovsky’s pet images and sounds – e.g. water dripping into stale pools, black & white flashbacks of decay and disaster, Japanese art and lifestyles – are emulated to heighten film’s aesthetic values. And there is Sven Nykvist’s camera wizardry with ultralong takes, and lighting that provides a sheen to even the most somber frames.