Times Staff Writer

Near the beginning of “The Sacrifice” (at the Nuart Friday through Jan. 14), exiled Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky’s great meditation on the imperiled future of humanity, a middle-aged man is planting a tree by the sea, telling his small, mute son that if he waters it every day at the same time, surely the world will change. The film ends with a shot of the boy carefully watering the fragile sapling.

These two sequences bracket Tarkovsky’s finest work, a culmination of all that has preoccupied him throughout his films. It is suffused with his characteristic longing for maternal love and for communion with God and nature.

No other film maker so powerfully evokes a world of the spirit existing beyond surface appearances, and in doing so, Tarkovsky creates some of the most piercingly beautiful images ever captured on film. He is also the most uncompromising of film makers, and his wearying, deliberately languorous pace places the utmost demands on our powers of concentration.

Yet if “The Sacrifice” proves to be the final film of Tarkovsky, who is suffering from cancer, no director could wish a more splendid valedictory.

The setting of “The Sacrifice,” which was made in Sweden, is a handsome house and swampy grounds--all the better for Tarkovsky’s famous water images--in a remote region by the sea. It is the birthday of its owner, Alexander (Erland Josephson), an eminent intellectual and former actor, and as family and friends gather for a celebration, he finds himself in a reflective mood, wondering whether he’s actually accomplished anything with his life, lamenting his loss of faith and venting his frustration with words when what he craves is action.


In a long dialogue with himself and with his philosophical friend Otto (Allan Edwall), the local postman, he reveals his concern for the imbalance of the spiritual and material in our lives, regretting that “as soon as we make a scientific breakthrough, we put it in the service of evil.” In contrast to the despairing Alexander, Otto proves to be a mystic, calling himself a collector of “incidents,” miraculous happenings that he has attempted to validate.

All this talk is suddenly shattered by the roar of jets overhead, and Alexander is knocked down when his small son suddenly rushes him. Does Alexander in fact lose consciousness?

From these two incidents Tarkovsky spins an enigma, leaving us to wonder whether what follows is Alexander’s dream, a false alarm or an actual crisis that is ultimately, if inexplicably, resolved. From a fragmented speech on television by the prime minister, we learn that the country (and all of Europe) is in imminent danger of nuclear holocaust--that, it seems, either the U.S.S.R. or the U.S. has started World War III.

Earlier, in presenting Alexander a huge, framed 17th-Century map of Europe, Otto says that of course it’s real and not a print--a gift isn’t a gift unless it involves a sacrifice; now Alexander goes on bended knees to God in offering to sacrifice himself “if all could be the same as before.”

In this second film since his exile from Russia, Tarkovsky has collaborated with some of Ingmar Bergman’s most illustrious colleagues, including the peerless cinematographer Sven Nykvist. At least twice we hear “In the beginning was the Word,” but “The Sacrifice” is a triumph of imagery, as Nykvist progresses from discreet tracks of Tarkovsky’s people in conversation against wintry landscapes to interior compositions so thrilling in their sheer beauty and sensuality as to transform the spirit.

In Nykvist’s hands a simple shot of a child sleeping in a crib alongside a chair and chest of drawers becomes luminous, even incandescent. To mark the transition of one major sequence to the next Nykvist drains color from the frame to varying degrees.

Not even Bergman has placed upon Erland Josephson the demands Tarkovsky has. Alexander may comment that he gave up acting because it was too difficult for him to be honest on the stage, too hard on his ego for him to dissolve himself in a character, but if ever there was an actor who placed himself in the service of his part, it is Josephson as Alexander.

In Alexander, Josephson allows us to experience every feeling of impotence we ever felt in confronting the darkening course of human events. In playing two of the most intellectual men ever depicted on the screen, he and Edwall sustain lengthy passages of philosophical discourse with crisp wit and conviction. Susan Fleetwood is Alexander’s elegant, neurotic British-born wife, Adelaide; Sven Wollten the rakish family doctor who’s fed up with Alexander’s family (and his affair with Fleetwood), and Gudrun Gisladottir as the enigmatic servant girl Maria, who becomes crucial in Alexander’s search for salvation and redemption.

As “The Sacrifice” comes full circle, returning to that spindly tree by the sea and its nurturing, the film itself emerges as a symbolic gesture of great emotional impact. We may share Alexander’s sense of impotence, but Tarkovsky can turn such feelings into a work of art. In the face of despair, the “hope and confidence” with which Tarkovsky dedicates his film to his own son, he makes “The Sacrifice” (rated PG for complex themes and style) a gift to us all.