Two prizewinning films begin to appear in US. Tarkovsky's `Sacrifice,' 18th-century `Mission'

Two of the top prizewinners at this year's Cannes Film Festival are now arriving on American screens. Both are ambitious works that announce their seriousness in their titles: ``The Sacrifice'' and ``The Mission.'' If it hadn't won the ``special grand jury prize'' at the Cannes filmfest, ``The Sacrifice'' might not have jumped onto the theatrical circuit so quickly. Made in Sweden by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who emigrated to Europe a few years ago, it's a rigorous and uncompromising work that treats religious and philosophical issues through a meandering story and a stream of visionary images.

Its plot is ambiguous, its characters eccentric, its pace maddeningly slow. Yet its themes are so absorbing, and its visual imagination is so powerful, that it takes on a poetic force unlike almost anything I've encountered in recent years outside Tarkovsky's own unique body of work. Combining an austere structure with a rich palette of cinematic effects, ``The Sacrifice'' makes more demands on its audience -- and offers more sumptuous rewards to those who take up its challenge -- than most films dare to dream of.

Erland Josephson plays the main character, Alexander, a professor and retired actor who lives with his family in a comfortable house near the Swedish coast. Although he loves his wife and grown daughter, the center of his life is Little Man, his affectionately nicknamed six-year-old son.

Alexander indicates some of the movie's key themes in a long monologue during the first scene, as he and Little Man plant a dead tree in grassy soil close to the sea. Scholars are always talking, the professor complains. What's needed is more action in the world. Best of all is regular, ritualized action -- even if it seems meaningless, like planting and feeding a dead tree -- because its discipline offers a possibility, however remote, of breaking through the deceptive shell of physical reality and penetrating to a deeper, truer level of being.

It's an odd notion, and Alexander only half believes it. But soon the twin facets of his personality -- intellectuality and intuition -- are put to a severe test. As he celebrates his birthday on a quiet afternoon with his family, word arrives that nuclear missiles have been launched and that universal holocaust and death are only hours away.

Each person reacts differently, on a spectrum that ranges from hysteria to despair. Alexander, finding that his gifts for logic and reasoning are useless in such an overwhelming crisis, impulsively seeks to take the end of the world on his own shoulders -- imploring God to spare mankind, and offering to give up everything he has in return.

Even the first portion of ``The Sacrifice'' is far more complex than this brief outline makes it sound. The dialogue is allusive and many layered, and the linear plot is punctuated by visions and flash-forwards that plunge us into the subjunctive tense -- suggesting not what is or will be, but what could happen if events stay on their course.

Eventually the film becomes mystical in tone, as Alexander receives an obscure sign that all is not lost and tries to follow a bizarre plan that he hopes will redeem his sacrificial promise and perhaps the world. The words and actions of other characters weave still more threads into the story, meanwhile, precluding any simple interpretation or resolution of its events. The one firm guidepost is Tarkovsky's obsessive wish to find (through Alexander) a wrinkle in the fabric of reality -- to crack into a new dimension through some small, hidden fold in the nature of things that might be penetrated by a concentrated act of faith or self-denial.

The visual style of ``The Sacrifice'' is defined by elegant, leisurely shots -- often sustained for breathtaking periods of time with no editing and shot by a camera that's capable of subtle yet exquisitely graceful movement. All these characteristics are Tarkovsky trademarks and will be familiar to anyone who has seen his earlier films, from the epical ``Andrei Rublov'' and ``Solaris'' to ``Stalker'' and ``Nostalghia,'' his most recent films. Yet the personality of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, a longtime colleague of Ingmar Bergman, also asserts itself through a stark beauty that's more generous than the imagery in previous Tarkovsky films, except perhaps that of ``Nostalghia'' and ``The Mirror'' a few years ago.

``The Sacrifice'' may seem infuriatingly slow to viewers who insist on the flashy pictures and speedy cutting that are common in films today. Still, its pleasures are many for those who do settle into its gradual rhythm. In pure storytelling terms, the slow-motion tempo slyly sets up the audience for an amazingly action-packed climax, full of outrageous motion and excitement. More importantly, though, the picture's largo pace establishes a mood that's truly contemplative -- offering less a narrative payoff than an environment for thought and meditation. It's a bold achievement, and only Tarkovsky could (or would, I suspect) have brought it off.

In comparison with ``The Sacrifice,'' the grand-prize winner at the Cannes festival seems little more than a coffee-table movie. ``The Mission'' is as big and beautiful as, say, ``Out of Africa'' and ``Gandhi'' were -- and just as unsuccessful in living up to its subject and setting.

The heroes are two Jesuit priests -- one a former slave hunter, the other a longtime monk -- who run a South American mission in the mid-18th century. Indians use it as a refuge from slave traders, so the Portuguese government wants it abolished, and the church authorities are caving in. The monks decide to resist the shutdown, one through violence and the other through faith. Everyone gets killed, but the narrator says their memory will live on.

``The Mission'' is high-minded, and it wants us to feel high-minded, too. The dialogue has lots of biblical quotations; the soundtrack rings with ethereal music; and even the misguided European churchman can't hide his admiration for the simple harmony of Indian life.

This is all very nice, but it doesn't cover up a lot of slack moviemaking. For a picture that consists largely of people sneaking up on each other through the jungle, ``The Mission'' has an incredible shortage of tension and suspense. The characters rarely seem at one with the exotic landscapes that surround them, moreover, and the Ennio Morricone music is surprisingly sappy.

As for the acting, you never know when Robert De Niro will spring one of his rare boring performances. He did it in ``The Last Tycoon'' and ``True Confessions,'' and he does it again here, hardly getting his mouth around the stilted lines he has to say. Jeremy Irons has a steady glimmer of intelligence as the senior monk, but he can't carry the whole picture.

Along with these problems, ``The Mission'' has a deeper failing at its core: a subtle racism that must be deplored even though it's surely unwitting. The screen is filled with Indians, yet not one is allowed to become a full-fledged character in the movie. They serve as mere pawns in a power struggle between white folks, and that struggle fascinates screenwriter Robert Bolt and director Roland Joff'e far more than Indian well-being, despite a printed message about Indian problems at the conclusion. This is why the deaths of the two priests are given more visual weight than the deaths of countless Indians all around them. And this is why the picture's aspiration to high-mindedness leaves me cold.

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