Sacrifice (1986): Tarkovsky's Masterpiece

Swedish production (Offret-Sa Crificatio)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice,” which world-premiered at the 1986 Cannes Film Fest, is a brilliant film and a most suitable swan song in the career of a brilliant director who had made only good movies.

Shot in Sweden with Sven Nykvist behind the camera, “The Sacrifice” is visually haunting and stunning.  It turned out to be the last feature of Tarkovsky, who died in Paris of lung cancer in 1986, at the age of 54.

Ironically, “The Sacrifice” was the first Tarkovsky film to get full critical attention and decent distribution in the U.S. and other countries.

Both existential and humanist, “The Sacrifice is a personal, intimate meditation on the value of selfless spiritual commitment.

Like the hero of his previous film, “Nostalgia” (1983), this tale’s protagonist, Alexander (again played by Erland Josephson) is confronted with the moral dilemma of just how strong is one man’s belief in his ideals.  In other words, is he willing to act on them?

When the story begins, Alexander and his six-year-old son are planting a tree along the barren shore of the small island, where the family is vacationing.

During the vacation, a disaster is announced. The onset of a nuclear war, WWIII–not seen but overheard via radio announcements and the sound of planes and rockets overhead–compels him to an act of “sacrifice.”  It’s an act that will shatter his almost bucolic daily life, yet also represents stands as a protestation of faith and hope for its future.  Alexander promises to do anything, give up his property and even separate from his son, if life would return to its normal state.

Like all of Tarkovsky’s films, “The Sacrifice” is a complex, spiritual film that deals with serious existential issues, and like them, it is defined by a poetic vision, allegories, and symbolism.

Aware of his own fatal illness, Tarkovsky imbues the film with a hopeful message for future generations, to live in greater harmony with nature and with one another.   Prophetically, he warns to stop the damage caused by humanity to the plant, before it’s too late.  Rather aptly, the movie is dedicated to Tarkovsky’s own son.

The casting of one of Bergman’s famous actors in the lead and the use of Bergman’s brilliant cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, not to mention shooting the film on the Faro Island, made comparisons with the Swedish filmmaker’s spiritual work inevitable.

The most widely praised of Tarkovsky’s films, “The Sacrifice” won the Special jury Prize at Cannes, the International Critics (Fipresci) Prize, and the Ecumneical Prize.


Alexander (Erland Josephson)

Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood)

Julia (Valerie Mairesse)

Otto (Allan Edwall)

Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir)

Victor (Sven Wollter)

Marta (Filippa Franzen)

Little Man (Tommy Kjelqvist)

Running time: 145 Minutes

About Tarkovsky


The son of a well-known poet, Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky was born in Russia on April 4, 1932.

Tarkovsky’s seven features and two shorts have each won numerous prizes at international festivals, including the Golden Lion at Venice, the Grand Prize at San Francisco, and at Cannes, the Special Jury Prize (twice) and the Grand Prize for Creative Cinema.

His career id chronicled in the documentary, “Directed by Tarkovsky,” in 1988.

Tarkovsky’s Filmography


Sacrifice, The (1986)

Tempo di viaggio (1983) (TV)

Nostalgia (1983) (USA)

Stalker (1979)

Mirror, The (1974)

Solaris (1972)

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

Steamroller and the Violin, The (1960)

There Will Be No Leave Today (1959)

Extract (1958)

Killers, The (1958)