Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Nostalghia’

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Nostalghia was Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, and the 1983 movie, made for Italian television, has the tone and scope of a work of contemplation and austere topicality, not at all uncommon for an artist in his or her later portions of life. The notion of this frequent tendency, to broach issues of dire seriousness in concluding creations, doesn’t work seamlessly with Tarkovsky, though. To begin with, while Nostalghia may have been his second-to-last feature, he was only 51 at the time (he tragically passed away just 3 years and one film later). In addition, this type of weighty subject matter had been common thematic territory for Tarkovsky since his first films in the early 1960s. And though only having made seven feature films, each approach was a spiritual level of visual, verbal, and atmospheric transcendence not regularly attempted by many other filmmakers, save for the likes of Bresson, Dreyer, and Bergman, and even they at least started with some frivolity. While Nostalghia is distinctly divergent from some of Tarkovsky’s previous works (certainly his shooting out of the USSR was a crucial factor), it is, nevertheless, unmistakably one of his own, a fine addition to his remarkable, though limited, body of work.

Nostalghia’s basic plot is established clearly and early. This sets the broad narrative wheels in motion while allowing time for the characters and the film to carry on with more substantial concerns beyond a surface story. Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy) is a Russian writer traveling through Italy to research the life and work of an Italian composer. Married with children, he is conflicted by his growing attachment to his traveling companion and translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano). Her romantic intentions are more obvious than his relatively internalized feelings, but in any case, it’s the cause of initial friction when the two arrive in a small Italian town. The film’s next major narrative thrust, the more significant one, comes when the two encounter Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson, who would star in Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice). Townsfolk ridicule the old man, for some time ago, fearing an impending apocalyptic event (a prime plot point of The Sacrifice), Domenico kept his family locked up for 7 years. Once freed, his family fled and he was left alone, deemed crazy and potentially dangerous. There doesn’t seem to have been much attempt to understand his reasoning, but Andrei is less quick to judge. What’s more, he’s in some way inspired, or at least intrigued, by Domenico’s conviction. Where others see madness, Andrei sees (and hopes for) faith.

Here begins Nostalghia’s more abstract interests. While these story elements infuse the duration of the film, for the most part, the primary ideas, actions, and images are expressly preoccupied by larger dilemmas pertaining to memories, fears, and spiritual voids. Upon first arriving in the town, Tarkovsky’s visual magnificence as manifest in natural exteriors is readily apparent. A foggy, damp majesty sweeps around the characters and envelops the screen. Anyone familiar with Tarkovsky’s films from Ivan’s Childhood onward knows that weather and the natural elements are of major aesthetic importance. The climate is literally and cinematically one of somberness. Rain, or the remnants of, soaks through nearly every frame, exteriors and, in some cases, interiors alike — “Water is a mysterious element,” said Tarkovsky, “a single molecule of which is very photogenic.”

Eugenia enters a church, where a devotion to initiate childbirth is underway. She speaks with a priest but she’s awkwardly out of place when surrounded by such belief (she can’t even kneel). This is where we first encounter some of the film’s religious application, and for the first time, one also sees common Tarkovsky compositions of observation; she’s not there to pray, she’s there “just to have a look.” Be it through the point of view of his characters, or just a general position of authorial commentary, lingering gazes of contemplation signal the thoughts and feelings of Eugenia (in this case) and assist in guiding the spectator toward the film’s own deliberations. This observational positioning continues throughout the film, moving back and forth between vantage points owned by the characters and unattached views resulting from Tarkovsky’s lateral tracks and slow dollies forward.

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The emphasis on the written word, particularly poetry (Tarkovsky’s father was a well-regarded and quite famous poet), alludes to another of the film’s preoccupations, that of translating texts and, subsequently, cultures. Can an Italian ever really understand Russian poems or novels? Conversely, how can a Russian fully grasp someone like Dante? As much on Tarkovsky’s mind as Andrei’s (the director was, after all, working for the first time away from home), this question boils down to a difficulty in understanding. Tarkovsky said the film “is about the impossibility of people living together without really knowing one another … there is an aspect of the film … concerning the impossibility of importing or exporting culture.” This carries over to Domenico, and Andrei’s attempts to come to terms with what the man did and why. In the same way that one tries to understand a culture and a country through its art, Andrei seeks to make sense of Domenico’s seemingly inexplicable actions. This is where the titular notion of the film is most prescient. As Tarkovsky stated, “I wanted to speak about that which is called ‘nostalgia,’ but I mean the word in its Russian sense, that is to say, a fatal disease. I wanted to show psychological traits typically Russian … The Russian term is difficult to translate: it could be compassion, but it’s even stronger than that. It’s identifying oneself with the suffering of another man, in a passionate way.”

These attempts at a clear personal or cultural understanding, on the part of the character Andrei and the filmmaker Tarkovsky, are complicated by Nostalghia’s multifaceted overlay of audio/visual construction. Like most of Tarkovsky’s work, Nostalghia progresses slowly, often holding a shot much longer than is normally the custom in today’s cinema (certainly in America), with only gradually perceptible shifts in light or camera movement. Elsewhere, disembodied voices discuss characters and actions, yet it’s not always fully clear who is speaking or, at least at first, who or what they’re speaking about. Tarkovsky’s graceful and supremely controlled tracking shots bring people in and out of frame, at times tracing the path of a particular character, at times simply scanning the territory. Poetic musings further add to the intricate patchwork of aural components.

Visually, aside from the basic veneer of lushly soggy settings, Tarkovsky’s exceptional skill at composition gives Nostalghia a dominant and continual beauty. Every frame, if stopped, is a still photo of tremendous splendor. It’s a quality obvious to see yet difficult to explain when a filmmaker is able to craft such carefully executed imagery. Like Stanley Kubrick (a former photographer whose similarly meticulous arrangements are frequently breathtaking), Tarkovsky’s Polaroid photos give the same impressions as his films; perhaps this talent is derived from this photogenic pastime? With the recently released Kino-Lorber Blu-ray of Nostalghia, this striking imagery is more prominent than it had ever been before on home video. (The quality of the visual and audio transfer had better be good, as the disc offers nothing else in the way bonus features. Not that they’re necessary, but when compared to Criterion’s Ivan’s Childhood and Solaris, a few additions would have been nice; Kino-Lorber’s release of The Sacrifice was similarly bare-bones, but did contain the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.) As he did with Solaris, Tarkovsky also shifts to sepia-toned sequences, here in the times of memory or dream (or fantasy). It’s not always apparent what sequences fall under what category, and at times, these scenes overlap with sights and sounds from the actual events of the individuals’ real life.

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Water has already been mentioned, but with Nostalghia, the elemental opposite occurs with some frequency and, presumably, significance. Fire, which first beautifully illuminated the church interior at the start of the film, by the end emerges during the two final scenes in pivotal though inconclusive ways. The first involves Domenico and a particularly shocking performance upon a statue. The last involves Andrei as he struggles to cross a drained pool without extinguishing the flame of a candle he’s holding. This latter sequence suggests a ritualistic test of sorts, a challenge that ultimately, when accomplished, leads to a sacred triumph yet also to Andrei’s apparent demise. Without making it explicit, Tarkovsky seems to be making a connection between death and fire, in opposition to water and life. “Our life is a metaphor, from the beginning until the end,” he has said. “Everything that surrounds us is a metaphor.” With this on his mind, it’s little wonder that so many of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films contained images if not entire sequences that seemed to be about more than just what they were simply showing. Reoccurring visual motifs point to narrative components that dictate something other than a momentary glance. And this is one of the joys with Tarkovsky’s work — frequently bewildering at first, if given the time and attention, mysteries unravel as further ambiguities are revealed, and, as in the case of Nostalghia, this fluctuation results in an extraordinary viewing experience.

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