Death Stalks 'Uncle Boonmee' and 'The Sacrifice'

It's tempting to recommend the latest film from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul strictly on the basis of its bravura set pieces. There's a family dinner invaded by departed loved ones, including the translucent ghost of an ex-wife and a mysteriously missing son returned as a glowing-eyed jungle-dwelling monkey ghost; a disfigured princess who makes love with a catfish in a shadowy jungle pool; a journey deep into the mysteries of a dark and glittering cave. The former two more or less work on their own as discrete units, almost like short films, in fact. The latter, on the other hand, falling near the end of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing DVD and Blu-ray), manages to build up something almost like suspense as we wait for the flashlight beam to reveal the answer to all that's come before. That it never really does—and that it doesn't really matter—speaks to both the film's inscrutable nature and the dreamlike spell it casts.

In terms of simple plot summary, Uncle Boonmee focuses on the final days of the titular relative (Thanapat Saisaymar), dying of kidney failure, as he retreats to his bucolic farm in the Thai countryside with a few family members and a servant. Nothing inspires looking back quite as much as not much to look forward to, and as Boonmee ruminates, accounts and visions and meditations regarding past lives take over.

Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, his best-known films in this country to date, played with bifurcated and parallel narratives. Uncle Boonmee fractures into multiple narratives, broken up into other times and other places and filmed in slightly different styles, united by a soul in common and by this cinematic account. It may not always be clear what's going on (is that water buffalo another reincarnation?), and there are references that will likely resonate only for Thai viewers, but what ultimately becomes scrutable is an overwhelming sense of the interconnectedness of not only Boonmee's past lives, but also the lives of his family—of us all, really—close or distant, past and present, this world or another (not least through the medium of film itself). As is typically the case with Weerasethakul's films, it's a bit of a puzzle, but it's a gorgeous and rewarding one.

Though it seems like a bad dream now, it wasn't so long ago that people lived with the knowledge/belief that nuclear war and the end of the world could happen any day, with no more warning than the time it took authorities to detect the ICBMs zooming over from the other side of the planet. That terrible shadow looms over The Sacrifice, the final film from Soviet auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, out now in new DVD and Blu-ray editions from Kino Lorber.

Released in 1986, with the Cold War still in its prime, the film centers on aging Swedish intellectual Alexander (Erland Josephson), whose family and friends gather at a remote family vacation home to celebrate his birthday. Their upper-middle-class idyll is interrupted by the scream of jets and fragments of ominous news; it sounds like the end. Brought low by desperate, gasping fear, Alexander attempts a deal with God: Spare his family and put the world back the way it was and he will destroy his own world and cut himself off from everything he holds dear. And God takes him up on that self-immolating bargain. Or does He?

Tarkovsky built a reputation as one of the titans of 20th-century world cinema on the basis of works such as Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and The Mirror, films molded by his stately cinema language and by his interest in the deepest questions of being, faith, and inspiration. The Sacrifice, which Tarkovsky made while ill with terminal cancer, plumbs the profound as well. It's difficult to think of a film in which more of the dialogue is whispered, much less prayed, as Alexander wrestles with philosophical issues early on while enjoying the countryside with his young son and then faces the prospect of his son's death (and everyone else's) and the idea of "giving him up" if only it would save the world. What Alexander comes to believe will turn back the world's terrible fate would likely sound preposterous in print, especially without the somnolent spell Tarkovsky and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (long-time collaborator of the director's idol, Ingmar Bergman) weave with their long shots, long takes, and Scandanavian half-light. (The release includes the making-of documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky on a bonus disc.) But when it comes time to keep the bargain, the choice for Alexander is real, the consequences devastating.

The Sacrifice lacks the sweep and clarity of Andrei Rublev, the radical vision of Stalker, or the intensely personal poetics of The Mirror, and its fiercest partisans are perhaps too swayed by its status as Tarkovsky's final statement. But few directors, upstarts or old masters, ever make a film so exquisitely crafted or so concerned with the more central chambers of the human soul.