1980s, 4/4, Andrei Tarkovsky, Drama, Review

Nostalghia

Nostalghia (1983) - IMDb

#4 in my ranking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.

This is probably Andrei Tarkovsky’s most autobiographical film, which is saying something because Mirror is about his own childhood. Mirror was really about the environment that led to the creation of Tarkovsky himself, in a way, but Nostalghia seems to be much more about Tarkovsky in the moment. His main character (also named Andrei) is a Russian national in Italy on a project, yearning for home, and the making of this film was when Tarkovsky decided to enter exile away from his motherland, the catalyst being Mosfilm pulling funding for the film right before production while he was in Italy after years and years of dealing with the Soviet bureaucracy. All of Tarkovsky’s films were personal to him, but this one just has that extra something there.

Considered a minor work in a filmography of seven movies, Nostalghia tells the story of Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) who is in Italy researching for a book about the Russian composer Pavel Sosnovsky with his attractive and young Italian translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano). They head to Bologna where Sosnovsky stayed for a time. They go to a remote church where a procession of women carry a statue of the Virgin in a ritual designed to pray to her for fertility, something Andrei made them go out of their way to see but doesn’t even bother to go in to witness.

Outside their hotel are some famous baths, mainly a large outdoor pool that a handful of people float in for restoration. Along this pool often walks the local crazy, Domenico (Erland Josephson). He locked his family up in his house for seven years, preparing for the Apocalypse which, of course, never came. His family fled after being rescued, and Domenico has quietly led a small life in Bologna ever since. This personality fascinates Andrei, and he wants to get to know him better despite Domenico having nothing to do with his research.

There’s an interesting moment before Andrei actually meets Domenico when he asks Eugenia the meaning of the Italian word “fede”. It means “faith”, but the way it’s asked and answered implies Andrei’s mental state rather perfectly. He has no faith behind the physical to the point where he doesn’t even know what it is. Of course, he literally does know what it is (Eugenia just offers up the Russian word instead of a definition), but the implication is strong.

Andrei meets Domenico at Domenico’s home, a remote building that’s falling apart with open sections in the roof that allow rain to fall down generously (a repeated image of The Room from Stalker), and Domenico reveals the depth of his faith that the world is in the process of ending. He also reveals that, in order to avert the Apocalypse, he must traverse the baths with a lighted candle, but he is constantly removed from the baths every time he tries. This is crazy talk on a literal level, but that’s kind of the point. It doesn’t take great faith to believe in something easy to digest. It takes great faith to believe in something outlandish.

The center of Tarkovsky’s films are always very small, the trials and tribulations of an individual against a larger context (Russian history in Andrei Rublev and Mirror, a thinking planet in Solaris, a room that grants innermost desires in Stalker, the Second World War in Ivan’s Childhood). How much can one person affect the larger context? How can one maintain faith in the face of so much allayed against them? From a man who lived his life in the Soviet Union, it’s an understandable point of view.

The main focus of the film ties into the film’s title. Nostalgia is rampant in the film as everyone yearns for a different time. Domenico rails against the modern world, the source of his Apocalyptic concerns. These words mean something to Andrei, who also yearns for his wife and children back home while feeling lost in the modern world at the same time. Even Eugenia thinks back to her time in Moscow and the other men she met there who might have made her happier than Andrei (she’s frustrated that he won’t sleep with her). How can everyone go back to the happier times of their memories?

These ideas, faith in a time of crisis and yearning for a happier time in the past, coalesce in Andrei. Lost in Italy with little belief, he latches onto Domenico slightly. When he returns to Rome to wait for his flight back to Moscow, he discovers that Domenico has gone to Rome as well, standing atop the statue in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuelle II and delivering long speeches (like Castro, Eugenia describes) about the evils of the modern world. It’s obvious, though, that Domenico is being manipulated, and when he self-immolates the man who handed him the gas can mocks his pain.

Faith must manifest in some way for the soul to find any kind of hope, it seems. Without faith, all that there remains is the material, and Andrei can’t seem to accept that, so he takes the candle Domenico gave him, goes back to Bologna, and walks across the now empty pool. This scene, all shot in one take as Andrei tries three times before successfully making it across, is the kind of thing that Tarkovsky understood. Hitchcock proved that editing is key to tension in film, but Tarkovsky found a way to pull it off without editing. The single shot is the kind of moment where the audience ends up holding its breath as we see wind knock the tiny flame back and forth as Andrei tries to shield it with his hand, arm, and even his coat.

Tarkovsky’s later films really rely on their endings to wrap everything up. Drawing from the Aristotelian ideal of classical unity, in particular its concept of unity of action, everything in the films was designed to come down to a single idea. Every action, character, and location was meant to further the idea at the core, and endings can end up very important to that concept as they wrap up the action and provide the resolution to everything that had come before it. So it’s interesting to watch the film with this in mind, certain that it will all come together, and it does. Andrei’s walk across the pool is open to some level of interpretation (Andrei succumbing to madness, finding faith, or perhaps just simply desperate for some meaning in the world), but it gives meaning to the preceding two hours. That effort on his part gives explanation to his early meanderings, solace and completion of Domenico’s own madness and faith, while also helping him come to terms with the absence of his own family.

Tarkovsky movies aren’t exactly what one would call fun, but they are engrossing if you let them. Nostalghia reminds me a bit of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a seemingly smaller film coming after something so much larger (Stalker for Tarkovsky and The Tree of Life for Malick), a supposed letdown of sorts from the previous work. However, I think both are really underappreciated considering their actual artistic merits. Nostlaghia represents a further refinement of Tarkovsky’s style after the chaos of the previous production, completely freed from the constraints of the Soviet bureaucracy, and still yearning for meaning.

Rating: 4/4

6 thoughts on “Nostalghia”

  1. I wonder sometimes how much art is merely the artist exploring personal issues instead of telling a story. Too often, far too often.

    I think Tolkien (and Peter Jackson’s adaptation) comes closer to the themes here in the Fellowship of the Ring and the Return of the King, specifically in two simple scenes, than this movie manages in its whole run time.

    I don’t dislike the themes, I don’t dislike the artists. But it’s not terribly enjoyable to watch. It’s like waiting three hours for dinner and it’s a buttered saltine. Now, I like buttered saltines but I don’t want to wait three hours for it. And…it’s not an Italian wedding feast.

    This, also, is my argument against Terrence Malik. They are personal films first, and for the audience as an afterthought. As art, that’s fine but as entertainment…pass.

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    1. Art vs entertainment.

      It’s an interesting question where one begins and the other ends. Themes aren’t the exclusive domain of the art film, of course. Tarkovsky was largely dismissive of “commercial cinema”, though he had apparently very nice things to say about Cameron’s The Terminator.

      What I get from Tarkovsky’s films are a generally unique experience where I’m taken into focused stories that do engage me emotionally as well as intellectually. They’re definitely not for everyone.

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  2. I think personal films are more difficult to process than personal books, or artwork, or even music. Mostly because films are created by a large number of performers and craftsmen, and the idea that the final product is really only meant for one person is kind of foreign (no pun intended) for an audience. Ideally, a film experience is a shared one with audiences, and if the focus is too inward (to the exclusion of any kind of common experience) then we feel like we’ve been left outside.

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