“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
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.
- 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.
Trailer for Nostalghia
COMMENTS: Nostalghia 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)
“…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 LINK: Nostalghia (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.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Irene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)