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Have you ever imagined that your own birthday party could give way to the apocalypse in the blink of an eye? If you don't like your family and friends, maybe so, but in a more literal sense, probably not. Nevertheless, that's the idea that Andrei Tarkovsky explored in The Sacrifice. The second film Tarkovsky made after his exile from the Soviet Union (the first being Nostalghia), The Sacrifice takes place in Sweden, with Swedish actors. The stark Scandinavian seaside setting invites comparisons to Ingmar Bergman, especially Bergman's own apocalypse film, Shame, featuring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in a desperate attempt to escape their isolated island home when it unexpectedly turns into a World War III battleground.
The main difference between Tarkovsky's vision of the apocalypse and Bergman's is that Tarkovsky's cast of characters, gathered together for patriarch Alexander's (Bergman regular Erland Josephson) birthday party, have nowhere to go when darkness suddenly descends upon them. The details of the apocalypse are unclear, except that there's no electricity, no hope, and no place in the world that's any safer than the luxurious home where Alexander and his family find themselves trapped and alone. In a moment of despair and desperation, atheist Alexander kneels down and prays to God, hoping against hope for a way out of the stifling darkness. But there appears to be no way out. Hope does present itself, but only briefly, in the form of a mysterious mailman who suggests to Alexander that he sleep with his servant, who also happens to be a witch, in order to restore things to their rightful order.
Make no mistake, though. Just as Solaris and Stalker are not your average sci-fi films, The Sacrifice is not a fast-paced doomsday thriller. Tarkovsky keeps the plot vague and lets the action (such as it is) unfold at a glacial pace. The film's genius is in its visuals: the first act unfolds in the muted greens and greys of dusk, the second signals a narrative shift with its sudden plunge into darkness and sepia-toned desolation, while the third act presents the characters' surrouding in blinding clarity - giving the closing section of the film a haunting finality, which is all the more fitting when you consider that The Sacrifice ended up being Tarkovksy's final testament to the world. More poetic and mystical than Bergman, The Sacrifice is an apocalyptic meditation like no other - melding life with dreams, religion with dark magic, and evoking a lost past while staring a bleak present squarely in the face.