The Strangely Ineffable Power of ‘Nostalghia’

[13 March 2014]

By John Oursler

Russian transcendental filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s expansive tapestries define meditativeness. Often dealing with themes of memory, loss and childhood, his cinematic exercises belong squarely in an intellectualized, decidedly existential artistic mode in which the viewer becomes an active participant, entering slightly fantastical realms in an effort to provoke thought. Because of the precision with which Tarkovsky calibrates the experience, the takeaway becomes more of a lingering after effect than something readily tangible—much like the singularity of watching one of his films.

The opening shot of Nostalghia (1983) is crucial in understanding the film’s entrancing rhythm and aestheticism. In a calming black and white longshot, three women walk from the foreground of the frame to its edge as a dog and white horse quietly observe in the distance. Rolling fog (a Tarkovsky staple) augments the lush environment as the scene segues from living document to still photograph.

This nearly imperceptible shift can be attributed to Tarkovsky’s signature protracted pacing, and what begins the film immediately establishes the thought template that continues throughout; to better engage with the present we need to understand and let go of the past. The point at which our living memory no longer arrests our development enables nostalgia. 

A Russian man, Andreyi Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), and an Italian woman, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), arrive in a rural Italian villa known as the home of Pavel Sosnovsky, an 18th Century Russian composer who committed suicide. Gorchakov is a writer himself, journeyed to the home of this other artist to research and translate some of his work. She acts as his translator even though he already speaks fluent Italian, and together they inhabit the gothic village on an epistemological quest. The narrative conceit of Nostalghia is relatively linear; what sets it apart is the distinctive aesthetic approach Tarkovsky uses to frame the philosophical undertones and emergent spirituality.

The dichotomous sequencing of the film’s opening continues throughout as Gorchakov’s professional quest invokes his personal history. He begins to learn about the customs of the place, mostly as a result of a chance meeting with a local man named Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson), who claims, among other things, that by walking across the village’s local mineral bath with a lit candle he can save the world. Domenico is something of a mad prophet whom the other townspeople merely tolerate, but in him Gorchakov finds a kindred spirit, a man displaced from the world by the burden of thought. He follows Domenico through the village, in the process taking in some of the man’s rantings.

Tarkovsky’s hypnotic framing of Gorchakov’s experience is made possible through his signature pacing, extended tracking shots, and slow zooms and focusing. As the conflicted writer in the film listens to those around him, he drifts in an out of consciousness, remembering, with varying clarity, what is likely his childhood home and family. Flashbacks are in the same lush black and white as the film’s opening, whereas the contemporaneous action is in soft colors. The temporal shifts flow together with ease, as they would in Gorchakov’s experience of them.

In Tarkovsky’s previous film, the sci-fi mystery Stalker (1979), several scenes feature rainfall and water in dwellings in which this would not be a regular occurrence. This happens again in Nostalghia during the scenes between Gorchakov and Domenico, proffering a somewhat indescribably soothing sensation brought upon by the juxtaposition of ostensibly incongruous elements.

The climax features one of the most breathtaking tracking shots in film history. Gorchakov goes into the now depleted mineral bath to test the theory proposed by Domenico. Starting at one end he lights a candle and, shielding it with his hand and overcoat, slowly walks to the other end of the bath, attempting to traverse the distance unscathed by nature’s elements. Wind invariably thwarts the efforts, but Gorchakov goes back to the well (to so speak), until he finally reaches the other end unscathed. He props the candle on a ledge and collapses, either from effort or because maybe he really did save the world and the relief is overwhelming.

“I am fed up with all your beauties” Gorchakov says in the beginning of the film, but this pessimism should not be conflated with the sometimes melancholic ways in which Tarkovsky chooses to present it. His films depict beauty as tormented, but also as inherently ineffable in its power. Nostalghia offers a similarly strange power in that its takeaways are not immediately recognizable, but the value of experiencing them feels unquestionably permanent.

Note: There are no special features included with this Blu-ray.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/179763-andrei-tarkovsky-nostalghia/