25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, an attachment which they will carry with them for their entire lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.  How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” –Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky

FEATURING: Oleg Yankovskiy, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

PLOT: Andrei is a Russian poet is traveling around Italy in the company of a fetching translator, researching a biography of a Russian composer who studied in Italy before returning to Russia only to drink and kill himself.  Andrei becomes homesick and bored with the project, and with life in general, until he becomes fascinated by a insane man living in a small town famous for its natural mineral baths.  The madman gives him a simple symbolic task to perform—which Andrei procrastinates in completing— then leaves for Rome on a mission of his own.

Still from Nostalghia (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tarkovsky was considered one of the finest filmmakers in the Soviet Union; he frequently ran into difficulty with the Soviet censors, however, particularly for his Christian viewpoints.  Although his films won acclaim at international film festivals, they were often shown to limited audiences in edited versions in his own country.  Work on the historical epic Tarkovsky was helming prior to Nostalghia had been halted by the Soviet censorship board because of scenes seen as critical of the state’s policy of official atheism.
  • Nostalghia was the first film Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union.  Originally intended to be a Soviet/Italian co-production, the state-owned USSR film production Mosfilm withdrew financial support for the project without comment after filming had already begun.
  • The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was awarded a special jury prize instead.  Tarkovsky claimed that the Soviet contingent applied pressure to assure that the film would not be awarded the grand prize.
  • Tarkovsky defected to the West soon after Nostalghia was completed, leaving his wife and son behind.  They were eventually allowed to leave the country when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.  Rumors persist that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was actually poisoned by the KGB in retaliation for his defection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many fine candidates.  The scene of Andrei attempting to carry a lit candle cupped in his hand across a drained spa may stick with the viewer, if not for its symbolism, then because it audaciously continues for over eight minutes.  But the final, static, picture postcard-like composition of a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral perhaps captures Tarkovsky’s theme the best, and is shockingly beautiful, as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The fluidity between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Although it’s almost always clear whether the events depicted actually occur or are imagined, Tarkovsky is much more interested in what is going on inside the heads of his alienated Russian poet and the Italian madman than in what is happening in the “real” world. He uses strong, sometimes obscure visual symbolism and dreams to convey an affecting mood of existential loneliness.

Video trailer for Nostalghia

COMMENTSNostalghia can’t be approached without a word of warning: this movie is slow.  Any film whose climax consists of a man struggling to carry a lit candle from one end of a drained pool to another, carefully cupping it against the wind, seeing it blown out and relighting it and restarting his journey, for almost nine minutes of screen time, can hardly be described by another word.  Very little happens in the story; the meaning is almost entirely conveyed through visual symbols rather than action or dialogue.  Watching Nostalghia is like staring a beautiful painted canvas that very slowly morphs into a different, but equally masterful, landscape.

Anyone who is interested in movies primarily as a visual medium will want to study Nostalghia closely.  The camera pans and zooms constantly, but slowly and deliberately, absorbing every detail.  The characters themselves move through these worlds languidly, as if they’re weary and half asleep, and even their emotions seem mired in molasses: an almost expressionless Andrei slowly opens a creaking door to reveal an almost expressionless Eugenia, whose face very gradually moves out of the shadows and slowly breaks into a Mona Lisa-like smile.  Many Americans, especially younger Americans used to Hollywood movies that sustain interest through a steady stream of events and violent confrontations, will find it to be excruciating going that confirms their worst stereotypes about plotless and obscure European art movies; but, at the risk of indulging in a cliche, Nostalghia rewards the patient viewer.  The prizes are a scrapbook of poignantly beautiful images, a mysteriously satisfying sense of spiritual longing and melancholy, and mystical excursions into a subconscious realm where the weird and the irrational hold sway.

Most of the joy of the movie comes from appreciating the painstakingly assembled and lit shots, which come in three varieties: Andrei’s nostalgic black and white reminiscences of his Russian homeland, a sun-baked Italy that occasionally blazes into brilliant yellows or glows the color of blue-green algae, and a blend of the two worlds, a dim, bleached landscape drenched in shadows so overwhelming that it appears to be monochrome.  Tarkovsky moves between these three visual schemes in an extraordinarily fluid way—there are no hard cuts, no unnatural, stylized transitions.  The ease with which he moves between the color and monochrome worlds echoes the ease with which he moves between the protagonist’s interior and exterior worlds.

As an example of this fluid method, consider the way Tarkovsky handles Andrei’s dream in the Bagno Vignoni hotel.  We have already seen his fading memories of his Russian homestead, where he imagines wife and his old German shepherd romping through a gray countryside.  When he enters the hotel room it’s darkened and shadowy, almost greyscale; when he turns on one light switch, the bulb casts an unnatural pale blue light, while switching on another light reveals that the bathroom wall that looked periwinkle in the shadows is actually bright white.  By flicking various switches and opening his window Andrei changes the color scheme from color to black and white and back.  As he prepares for sleep, accompanied by the sound of rain, he switches off all the lights, invoking the monochromatic color scheme.  As the moon glow changes, causing more and more of the room to fall into inky shadows, we notice that the old dog of his memory has wandered in from the bathroom and settled at the foot of his bed.  In a few minutes we have almost imperceptibly moved from the waking world to the dreaming world, without realizing it, just as if we were falling asleep in our chairs watching the screen.  The black and white dream that follows, while beautiful, is less impressive than the way the transition was achieved.

The key scene for lovers of the weird will likely be Andrei’s trip inside divine lunatic Domenico’s lair, a ramshackle, irrational space that’s a jumbled reflection of his own mad mind.   The home, where the madman once kept his family imprisoned for years, is full of both brick-a-brack and magical secrets, though the paradoxes within are largely created by Tarkovsky’s camera.  The crumbling masonry is white and the house is full of shadows and oddly lit, with sunlight appearing on the walls in random patches, recreating the mock monochrome color scheme the director has used before.  In contrast, there is a window that Andrei and Domenico occasionally wander by that looks out on a forest of verdant green plants.  Another window forms the basis of one of the house’s visual mysteries: as Andrei enters, he views a window that looks out on a Tuscan countryside full of rolling hills.  The camera reveals, however, that there is less to the scene than meets the eye; Domenico has created a marvelous model of the landscape complete with crystalline streams, and positioned his creation directly in front of the window sill so that it seamlessly blends into the view.  In another trick, the camera, tracking Andrei’s eye, pans from the model up to the window, and as it climbs the color leeches away until the zenith of the pan is in black and white, like the gray postcard views of the Russian’s memory.  Tarkovsky deploys other illusions to disorient the viewer and create an interior dreamscape.  The camera will pan around three corners of a room, and Andrei will appear in each corner, seemingly without having moved.  A poster of a frightening baby with a large head and blank eye sockets suddenly appears on a way and fades away.  After having shot the scene so that it appears Andrei and Domenico are conversing in tight quarters, the camera pulls back to reveal that the room is actually cavernous, like a warehouse, and has a leaky thatched roof.  As a final note, notice how “1 + 1 = 1” appears carved on a wall: it’s a sensible metaphor that Domenico fully explains in dialogue, but a sight which nonetheless appears screamingly irrational when engraved into a madman’s home, and one which is amplified because Domenico has just begun talking to his dog about his guilty conscience as the equation comes into view.  The scenes inside this sanctuary produce a subtly jarring impression of benign madness.

Three other standout scenes deserve mentioning. The first striking image in the film occurs in a cathedral where women pray to an effigy of Madonna for fertility and rip open her torso to free a flock of small birds.  In the second, a homesick Andrei drinks vodka and wanders into an extraordinary, half-flooded ruins covered in green algae, where you can almost smell the stagnant water. There he delivers his finest monologue of the film: a drunken speech to a little Italian girl. (In fact, this is virtually the only scene where stoic Andrei shows any visible emotion).  Finally, the immolation scene, after Domenico has delivered his mad speech to the people of Rome, from atop the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, set to the distorted strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—coupled with the bizarre reactions of the assembled spectators—is also likely to burn itself into the viewer’s memory.

If there is one complaint, besides the often overly deliberate pace, it’s that it’s difficult to know what to make of Eugenia.  Her character is constantly unsatisfied.  She cannot understand the devout women who pray to the Madonna of Childbirth, or even bring herself to kneel respectfully at the church.  She haughtily rejects the sacristan’s reactionary idea that women are fulfilled through motherhood, but offers no view of her own to counter that notion.  She is frustrated in her unrequited love for Andrei, and ends up with a powerful man who ignores her.  While the other two main characters are granted a climax to their story arcs, her final act is to go out for a pack of cigarettes (the movie has previously impressed upon us that smoking is a non-act, a waste of time).  Perhaps she exists to only show the alienation of the modern European from her own culture.  Still, she emerges as an unfulfilling character as well as an unfulfilled one; given the amount of screen time Eugenia is given and the heart Domiziana Giordano puts into the role, it seems a shame to leave her character so unexplored.

Like Eugenia, Andrei is also unsatisfied throughout most of the movie.  He begins by saying “I’m tired of seeing these sickeningly beautiful sights,” and progresses to “I’m bored.”  He is in the grips of nostalghia throughout, but he is also simply world-weary, suggesting that his homesickness is not merely for Mother Russia, but for his spiritual home.  He seems to be surprised, and a bit sad, when a little girl tells him she is happy to be alive.  He does not seek to return home, at least not until the very end of the movie.  It’s unclear why he procrastinates in completing the ritual as he promised Domenico, or what he does after he parts from Eugenia, other than drink and dream.  It’s also unclear how, and even whether, carrying the lit candle across the bath brings him redemption.  The symbolism is unforced and open-ended, but carrying the candle to the other side, struggling to keep it lit, suffering false starts and having to begin all over with a new strategy suggests the journey of a life from birth to death.

The final shot, of Andre and his dog reclining in front of their homestead, now nestled inside the outdoor nave of San Galgano Abbey, is beautiful, but I find it ambiguous.  It suggests that those two worlds—the Italian and the Russian, the material and the spiritual—that Andrei has been unable to synthesize, or to translate, have finally been merged.  But the film’s overall tone, up until its final seconds, fills us with such visions of melancholy beauty—a sense of longing that never quite slips and falls into despair or rises to hope–that it’s hard to experience this final, quiet image as a triumphant transformation, or to imagine that Andrei’s nostalghia has been cured by simple (or even by difficult) symbolism.  Although you can’t see Andrei’s expression in the picture, I can’t imagine him wearing anything other than the slightly pained mask he wears throughout the entire film.  The tension inherent in that final shot, which suggests a sudden burst of heavenly grace that is inconsonant with most of what has come before, gives that parting shot a great deal of power.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mr. Tarkovsky… may well be a film poet, but he’s a film poet with a tiny vocabulary. The same eventually boring images keep recurring in film after film – shots of damp landscapes, marshes, hills in fog, and abandoned buildings with roofs that leak.”–Vicnent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Highly cerebral, beautifully realized, and symbolically obscure, Nostalghia is a cinematic abstract of spiritual hunger.”–Acquarello, Strictly Film School (DVD)

“…Nostalghia represents an important contribution to the Tarkovsky canon, containing some of the director’s most indelible images. Domenico’s self-immolation is surreal and upsetting, played out in an atmosphere that recalls the madhouse in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (the gathered crowd looks dangerously mad), and the final image, of Andrei sitting by a small model of his boyhood home contained within the arches of a ruined Italian cathedral, sums up the film’s dialectic of reality and fantasy as only a powerful image can.”–Nick Burton, Pif Magazine (DVD)

IMDB LINKNostalghia (1983)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Nostalghia.com – An Andrei Tarkovsky Information Site – remarkably complete site dedicated to Tarkovsky with plenty of Nostalghia-specific content; fans of the director will become pleasantly lost here

Nostalghia @ Turner Classic Movies – no real analysis, but plenty of background information on the production

DVD INFO: I reviewed Nostalghia from a VHS copy, so the DVD information here is secondhand.

The most easily obtained version currently in circulation is an all-regions disc from South Korea (buy).  No extras are listed.  Some consumers have stated this version is identical to the discontinued Fox Lorber Region 1 edition (buy), which is still available new (at premium prices) and used.

UPDATE: Kino Lorber released a Region 1 DVD (buy and Blu-ray (buy) of Nostalghia in 2014. There were no extra features aside from the trailer.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Irene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

12 thoughts on “25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)”

  1. Most profound, thoughtful, insightful, most elaborate review of ‘Nostalghia’ I’ve ever read. You have managed to make a painstaking analysis of a rather evasive picture.

    I was always asking myself why the impression of the movie is so long-lasting and does not allow you to forget it with the run of time. I believe its effect is such because of the eternal issues it touches upon, the issues of life and death; love and hate; inner freedom and duty; longing for the native land and inability to integrate into an alien community, yet feeling oneself as an integral part of the Christina world (a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral as you perfectly point it out), inability to fight the inconsistency between the inner and outer world (meeting with the mad man and his speech)….

    I would mention many a wonderful pieces of your review but it would take a long time and much space.

    As to the shots of Andrei “struggling to carry a lit candle from one end of a drained pool to another”, let me try to express my opinion. In the Russian Orthodox Christianity there is a tradition according to which it is necessary to carry a lit candle from a church to home on the Great Thursday or here we call it Net Thursday. It happens between the morning and evening liturgy.

    The Russian Orthodox Church considers it to be a symbol of great love to the Savior. Religious people normally keep the remainder of the candle the entire year and believe that if a person does not mange to carry the lit candle home a disaster might happen to that person and if he/she manages to carry it safe the person will live safe the whole year till the next Easter.

    It seems to me this belief and tradition was employed by Tarkovsky in this episode, one of the most impressing and enchanting episodes of the movie.

    Let me express my gratitude to you for an excellent review.

  2. This is an indeed an excellent and thorough review on a most sublime and exquisite work of art. If I had my way, the whole of Tarkovsky’s films would be required for all aspiring filmmakers. Recommend “Stalker” for the site, of course. Many thanks.

  3. Thanks for this great review. I first saw all of Tarkovsky’s films about 8 years ago, but am watching them again and exploring them more in depth. Your review really helped me to see even more in this great movie. I just noticed an odd parallel, which I’m sure has been noticed before. The final “candle” scene parallel’s the scene where Eugenia is trying to convince Domenico to speak with Andrei. The camera moves in exactly the same way, only much quicker. To the left, “failure”, back to the right. Once again to the left, “failure” back to the right again, and to the left one final time, “success.” Not sure if that was intentional, but I’m guessing it was.

  4. It is very disturbing and profoundly sad to see the work of Tarkovsky exposed here. Everything he was fighting against (entertainment in art, shallowness, simple-mindedness, spiritual misery) is embodied in ideas of people who think to know and don’t want to question their knowledge. The profound lack of knowledge and general culture, shown here, is frightening. Hopefully you will be capable to inform yourself, to think and understand what your mistake is all about.
    It is as if some one says that he knows what the heart surgery is without hesitation. Think about it, please!

    1. You seem to be basing your accusation that this is a “pitiful website” on another accusation, namely that this website shows “a profound lack of knowledge and general culture”. What lack of knowledge exactly? Please give examples. To me the review of Nostalghia, for example, seems detailed, well researched, thoughtful and very well written. No evidence of a profound lack of knowledge there as far as I can tell. And what lack of general culture are you talking about? To me knowing about and being able to appreciate a wide range of different kinds of movies is not evidence of a lack of generaj culture. Also, I don’t see the relevance of your analogy at all. Who is claiming to know what without hesitation? Are you really sure that you have a basis for your accusations? Think about it, please!

    2. Then enlighten us please.
      Myself, I found this discursive analysis/review interesting and helpful.
      No use dissing someone else without providing your own viewpoint.

  5. you can’t place his films under this kind of title and category…

    366 Weird Movies

    Celebrating the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, psychotronic, and the just plain WEIRD!

    1. Most people would agree that Tarkovsky’s films are surreal (“having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic”). I would say they often also meet the definition of weird (“involving or suggesting the supernatural; unearthly or uncanny.”)

      And certainly Tarkovsky’s films have gathered a “cult” of devotees; you seem to be among them.

      None of these terms are pejorative or inconsistent with great artistic achievement.

      Honestly, I think you should be happy that Tarkovsky’s films are being brought to the attention of an audience that otherwise might not be exposed to them.

      Dreamer said the rest of what needed to be said.

  6. Of his contemporaries Tarkovsky most responded to Luis Bunuel. From his ‘Sculpting in Time” : … Turning now to the work of one of the filmmakers to whom I feel the closest, Luis Bunuel. We find the driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest -furious, uncompromising and harsh-is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated, not cerebral, not formulated intellectually.” Nuff said.

  7. Yeah, the kino-lorber blu-Ray version is abslutely great!!!
    They rebuilt the film, the colours , sound, all – don’t buy any other version! This one’s the best!
    But be aware: no other language than italien/russia – only english subtitles.
    Europeans: watch out: this BD is labeled with code “A” – so you need a code-free BluRay player to watch this BD in Europe!
    But its worth it!

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