by Keith Uhlich
A man adrift in a film adrift: A spectral fog hovers over the Tuscan countryside as the Russian writer Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), along with his translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano, a pre-Raphaelite beauty in modern dress), arrives at an isolated abbey. “Speak Italian,” he insists to his escort, attempting to bridge the first of this haunted movie’s many divides. But something is holding him back. Though he’s here to research the life and death of the expatriate composer—and his countryman from centuries prior—Pavel Sosnovsky, Andrei finds it difficult to connect to his surroundings. The sepia-tinted rural flashback playing under the movie’s opening credits hints at the longings, soon to be explored with maximum surreality, that plague him. He can never quite reconcile where he is with where he was.
There’s another Andrei involved—Tarkovsky, the cowriter and director of Nostalghia (1983). His objective, as he notes in his manifesto Sculpting in Time, was “to make a film… about that state of mind peculiar to our nation which affects Russians who are far from their native land.” “State of mind” encapsulates the experience of this filmmaker’s penultimate feature, a story about borders (of the brain, the soul, the body politic) that tries its damnedest, fool’s errand though it may be, to abolish them. Like his lead character, Tarkovsky had his life upended by Italy. During one of his several journeys there, he and Nostalghia coscreenwriter Tonino Guerra made Voyage in Time, a documentary about the cinematic creative process—before deciding while filming this project to abandon his Soviet homeland for Europe.
In every frame, you can sense Tarkovsky working through his epochal choice and its likely consequences. “[I]rrespective of my own specific theoretical intentions, the camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming,” he reflected. His confusion and melancholy are imprinted on celluloid, and his characters mirror every aspect of his troubled being. Though Andrei is the ostensible protagonist, it’s Eugenia we follow in the first sequence since her sullen companion refuses to accompany her into the abbey. Inside, she witnesses a strange ceremony involving a Madonna icon stuffed with live birds and fends off the assertive comments of a cleric who holds antiquated notions of a woman’s place in the world—sentiments some have posited as Tarkovsky’s own misogynistic perspective. (A lengthy scene in which Eugenia tears into Andrei for refusing to sleep with her—“She’s insane”is his brief reply to her vitriol—lends support to the idea that we’re not in the most feminine-empathetic of hands.)
Yet as with most of Tarkovsky’s filmography, Nostalghia resists any such easy ideological classifications. It’s an intentional, ever-mutating muddle: For Andrei, the male-female divide is as pronounced as the separation he senses between Russia and Italy, as surely as Tarkovsky implies a distance of his own via the constant referencing, and eventual onscreen burning, of a book of poetry by his father, Arseny. All human beings are countries with their own boundaries—perhaps one reason Andrei gravitates toward the madman Domenico (Erland Josephson), a recluse living in the sparsely populated spa town where Andrei and Eugenia hole up for a few days.
Domenico becomes Andrei’s muse. They share a similar existential disconnect from the world, though Domenico expresses it outwardly and defiantly, going as far as locking up his family for seven years in anticipation of the apocalypse. Both men also have access to a shifty dream space—shades of the Zone in Stalker (1979)—in which identities constantly shuffle and the same canine pops up as a kind of spirit-world chaperon. Not that Tarkovsky makes much of a distinction between waking life and trance states: Domenico’s run-down villa is a nightmare of plastic tarps and empty bottles set out to capture rainwater from a profusely leaking roof. A stunning climactic sequence in Rome plays like an end of days mashup of a Fellini bacchanal and one of Antonioni’s caustic sick-soul-of-Europe setpieces. (Guerra worked as a scenarist with both Italian directors.)
Even at its most opaque, the goal in Nostalghia is clear—to somehow reconcile the contradictory feelings and forces that inevitably dog us, and at worst imprison us. So it is that an irrational man (Domenico) gives a seemingly rational one (Andrei) an impossible task (to carry a lit candle from one side of a holy pool to the other) that he must somehow make possible. The deed itself is as much an actual challenge as a fictional one; if there’s any trickery involved in the masterful single shot that captures Andrei’s microcosmic spiritual pilgrimage, it’s imperceptible. Every time the candle blows out and the journey begins again, the tension increases because we believe it's truly happening in front of us. Like Eugenia with the Madonna, we are bearing witness, and the lack of editing brings us closer, beyond the veil of the screen, harmonizing the real and the reel. The sublime sequence that follows Andrei’s completion of the task—a hypnagogic vision of Tarkovsky’s brooding protagonist finally at peace with where he is and where he was—collapses the boundaries further until all is insanely, immaculately one.
BAMcinématek screens a new 35mm print of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Nostalghia through June 13 as part of TransCultural Express,
a partnership with the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund to promote cultural
exchange between American and Russian artists and audiences.
Keith Uhlich is a film critic at Time Out New York and the writer of
the website The Completist.