Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky has a reputation for making challenging movies that are anything but straight-forward narratives. They are loaded with poetry, symbolism, allegory, imagery and soundscapes that add up to an experience different from that of watching most other films. Whether or not this approach to movies appeals to any individual viewer is a matter of personal psychology. Some movies of this type may require some effort to "figure out" intellectually, while others use visceral appeals to the senses to bridge the logical gaps in their puzzle-like narratives. I tend to like the intellectual approach when given enough thematic clues to follow the director's trail, or the emotional approach when the aesthetic choices overwhelm my intellectual inclinations. I'm not sure that any amount of effort will help me understand Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice, which begins as if it might be one of his more coherent narratives, but ultimately left me struggling to make out the connections between any of the moments leading up to its impressive final set-piece.
A small collection of fairly nondescript upper class people gather in a remote Swedish house for a birthday party, but the celebration is interrupted by news of impending world war, most likely nuclear. At first, the reactions are discernible: grief and fear and denial and stoicism…. But The Sacrifice then makes a left turn into what might have been the plot of a bawdy comedy, and then a right turn as if the previous turn never happened, and ends with a spectacular scene that made no sense to me in terms of character motivation or narrative resolution, but maybe a little in terms of symbolism — but when the theme of a movie is so oblique, how are seemingly random symbols supposed to inform the interpretation of the whole?
It's interesting, but possibly works against the film, that The Sacrifice feels very much like an Ingmar Bergman movie, with Tarkovsky filming in Sweden with regular Bergman collaborators actor Erland Josephson, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, production designer Anna Asp, and even Bergman's son Daniel as a camera assistant. The milieu — intellectuals struggling with doubt and fear and guilt in a rustic setting — is certainly Bergmanesque, but with the characters lacking Bergman's bitter energy, and the movie's look is like a late-period Bergman sapped of its rich colors. Everything seems to be borrowed and then de-saturated, drained of life and meaning.
The final scene's six-minute-long continuous shot involving all of the characters moving this way and that in difficult elements, while something irreversible happens in the background, is a marvel of coordination — and even more incredible in that it had to be shot twice due to a camera malfunction. But, sadly, while I assume this shot was meant to carry incredible climactic emotional weight, in the absence of a discernible thematic lead-up or vibrantly conceived characters whose concerns or actions are comprehensible and meaningful, it's merely an empty exercise in logistics. It, too, might have fit just as well (or better) into a Mel Brooks movie as it does in a serious rumination on physical and spiritual desolation.
There's an illustrative interchange between two characters near the middle of The Sacrifice, as the plot takes its first odd diversion. Josephson is awakened in the middle of the night by another man, who excitedly gives bizarre instructions detached from rationality. Josephson, frustrated, demands, "Can't you express yourself more clearly?" and then, after more confusion, "Why do you always have to beat around the bush?" The other man berates him, "Can't you pay more attention?" This is pretty much how I feel while watching Tarkovsky, and the little I've read about him and his awareness of his audience leads me to suspect that this may have been an intentional in-joke. In fact, maybe there's some humorous self-reflection in that final scene, as Josephson's character makes a grand inexplicable gesture and is then chased around in the muck, intermittently surrendering and then reversing course to evade capture. But if Tarkovsky is having some fun with himself and his audience, the same question applies to both the joke and the climactic aimless chase: Is there any point to any of it? I don't know, and I'm not convinced Tarkovsky does either, and it's not especially rewarding to watch him yet again muddle through the same answerless questions in the same fatuous manner.