The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Kiss Me Deadly
New York, New York
The Sacrifice
ASC Close-Up
The Sacrifice (1986)
Remastered Ray-ray Edition
1.66:1 (High Definition 1080p)
2.0 Digital Monaural
Kino Lorber Inc., $39.95   

On the remote shores of the bucolic Swedish island Faro, an aging actor, Alexander (Erland Josephson) pushes a large, fallen branch from a dead tree into the ground and nestles it into a hole between stones and wood so it can remain erect and appear to be a new tree. He tells his young son, Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist), a monk once erected a barren tree and asked his young pupil to come each day to water it. The pupil did this daily for three years, until one day finding the tree covered in fresh blossoms. “Say what you will,” philosophizes Alexander, “but a method, a system, has its virtues.”  

Alexander and Little Man steady the tree and then wander back to their family estate. It is Alexander's birthday, and a small group, including his wife, teenaged daughter, friends and servants are waiting at the house to celebrate with him. The overcast skies above their home hide the sun and suggest ominous weather.

Once inside, Alexander contemplates life with his family doctor, who is visiting for the occasion. As the day becomes disturbingly gloomier, a series of ground-shaking explosions are experienced, physically rattling the house and all its inhabitants. It appears war has been declared, and bombs have been dropped. The media confirm the catastrophe and then further state the toxins from the bomb will kill everyone.  

As the unnaturally long day of gray light draws to a close, Alexander must cope with the ramifications of his own mortality and that of his terrified family. He emerges, after many hours of thought, in a state of anger and confusion. He ultimately makes a bargain with God. If God will spare his loved ones from impending death, he will give up everything he loves, including his home and his love for his family.

The last work of legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, The Sacrifice (1986) continues his existential ruminations on the meaning of life. In this broad, dream-like film, one is never sure what is meant to be real and what is not. Tarkovsky, terminally ill as he went into production, wanted his last film to be partly an homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman. The director set the film in Sweden, cast Bergman-regular Josephson and selected Bergman's frequent cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, ASC (Fanny and Alexander), to evoke the feel of a Bergman film. Nykvist worked closely with Tarkovsky, who preferred using extremely long takes as well as often difficult and meticulous lighting set-ups. Nykvist, as the special features on the disc show, was often confronted with problems while trying to honor the director's obsession with shades of gray between color and black and white as well as carrying out the very long takes, but he ultimately succeeded in giving the film its memorable look. Nykvist's remarkable work on the film earned him the award for Best Cinematography at the Cannes Film Festival. The admired cinematographer earned many awards during his career and was the recipient of the ASC's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.

The Sacrifice  has debuted in high-definition ray-ray from Kino Lorber Inc. The image transfer here, while certainly an upgrade over the previously existing DVD transfer, is uneven. On the positive side, color tonality seems vivid and correct, and there is good contrast in the brighter scenes. While Nykvist's crisp sharpness that illuminates minor details is visible, it does, unfortunately, often feel as though it has been digitally interfered with, particularly in darker, grainier scenes in which Digital Noise Reduction has, in several instances, been too liberally employed. This occasionally gives the image an artificial look. Still, in general, the film's bold grayscale is intact, and it holds up as the distinct winner when compared to earlier standard-definition transfers. The 2.0 stereo track is acceptable, with good reproduction of the audio, giving particular attention to the film's use of classical music.

While The Sacrifice Ray-ray disc contains only the film, the package includes a standard-definition DVD that contains the feature-length documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988). This detailed documentary features extensive coverage of daily work on the film. This front-row seat for watching the actors and crew, including Nykvist, work closely with Tarkovsky, is an impressive supplement and gives tremendous insight into the eclectic director's style. The documentary also manages to include numerous poignant asides as Tarkovsky grapples with questions of his own mortality while trying to finish this apocalyptic vision. Also included on the second disc are film stills and trailers for other Kino titles.

Famous for its hypnotic long takes and beautifully barren images of a world running out of time, The Sacrifice remains the most provocative of Tarkovsky's work. It seamlessly blurs the lines between narrative reality and dream space so the viewer is never sure if the protagonist is truly doomed, has imagined his fate or is simply mad. It is a unique, singular achievement, and this ray-ray will certainly continue to draw viewers to its proverbial flame.  

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