The Sacrifice, like all of Tarkovsky’s films I’ve seen until now, begins in the middle of action. It drops us off with characters in the middle of a series of events without much background, and only reveals information little by little, allowing us to discover that world on our own. The Sacrifice begins with a long take that keeps going and going for close to ten minutes. The camera is mostly stationary, the only movement being along the track, and an occasional zoom. Most of the film unravels in a similar fashion.
Also, as the characters move around, the camera follows them creating fluid and complex shots, a staple of cinema, but the general lack of closeups gives the film a theatrical feel. That could be both good and bad, but I think that while it’s not perfect, it works. However, the blocking is incredible, and in usual Tarkovsky manner, they can sometimes be tricky, like characters appearing in the opposite side of the frame. It can take you out of the story, but only momentarily.
It’s taken me a little while to realize Tarkovsky’s disinterest in cohesive narrative. At first it confused me, and I considered it a flaw in his work, but now I’ve begun to appreciate it. While it’s still considered necessary to have some logical explanation of the events, Tarkovsky’s pioneering efforts to create a story that doesn’t explain everything simply because he does not want to explain it are well carried out.
One of the things I liked is the ambiguity about the time period. The setting and clothing indicate early 1900s but then we see a car from the 70s, a television and we even hear airplanes carrying bombs. It’s all part of his ambiguous agenda.
The one issue I have with this film, and one I also have with Bergman (I mention him because the connections present with both auteurs in this film) is the need to have long, philosophical monologues. Bergman employs them a lot, and Tarkovsky too, at least in this film. I think it’s impossible to have them work on screen. They work on the page merely because one has a lot of time to read and reread until the monologue is understood. In film, you only have as long as it takes for the actor to say it. It cannot be explained fully and, by default, it cannot be understood with the time limits.
I think Bergman realized this, and while he continued to use them, he did so a bit more cynically. The examples I can think of are from Scenes from a Marriage where Erland Josephson (who also stars in this film) delivers his monologues as Liv Ullmann, playing his wife, merely listens without much interest or simply doing something else, usually more mundane but practical. I think it’s a way of suggesting that while those issues are important, one cannot spend one’s life thinking of them.
Overall, the film is a technical masterpiece. A vision accomplished by Tarkovsky, and brought to life by his crew of talented individuals. The mood accomplished is incredible and a lot is owed to production design, with an emphasis on the costume design and especially the performances. It’s a great film, that, like all his other films, requires a second viewing.