Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice at the Pacific Film Archive

Friday night, my wife and I attended the Pacific Film Archive‘s first screening of 2018 – a new 4K restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice.

The film opens with the main character (Erland Josephson) teaching a young boy how to plant and care for a new tree. This is clearly an optimistic sign – the human race has a future. And yet, the survival of our species seems to hang in the balance.

This very quiet, low-key film seems to be about nuclear war, or a nuclear accident (it was made not long after Chernobyl), seen from a very spiritual, Christian point of view. Or maybe it’s just about an intellectual who had gone off his meds. It’s hard to say. Either way, it puts you under a very strong, foreboding spell. You feel as if the entire world is falling apart. And yet, the film sticks to a handful of people in and around a very nice house far out in the country.

Tarkovsky made The Sacrifice in Sweden, and in Swedish, after he had left the Soviet Union. With Josephson in the main role and Sven Nykvist handling the camera, you can’t help feeling a strong Bergman influence here. The limited locations and small cast add to the Bergmanesqe feel, as does Nykvist’s muted colors and careful shades, which create a strange, almost unearthly, and yet very natural look.

It contains one scene of very disturbing mansplaining. I’m not sure Tarkovsky planned it to be as troubling as if feels today.

I give The Sacrifice an A-.

The PFA theater was packed.

There were some problems with the DCP at the beginning. As is so often with new restorations, it started with a very wordy title card explaining how the film was saved. But the card was in French (yes, not Swedish), and lacked English subtitles. That got me worried; what if the whole thing lacked subtitles? (Luckily, the subtitles came on soon enough.)

A bigger problem: The opening credits initially lacked sound. I assumed that was Tarkovsky’s artistic choice. But then someone in the audience yelled “Sound!” A few seconds later, the music suddenly popped up in the middle of a piece. Apparently, the projectionist forgot to flip a switch.

Once things got going, the 4K DCP looked fantastic. Nykvist’s subtle shades did their work, and every detail was sharp – except the ones that were intended to be soft.

The Sacrifice will play at the PFA again on Sunday, 28 and Friday, February 23. The Roxie will screen it today (Sunday) at 3:00.