The films of the late Andrei Tarkovsky have a reputation of being audience unfriendly to a fault, of being difficult, highly personal and visual films with a stupifying effect on the viewer that has triggered a bout of attention deficit disorder in more than one viewer. The truth is that Tarkovsky, the son of a poet, uses an almost entirely poetic approach to filmmaking that bravely lets the audience decode for itself a good deal of what is shown. Yes it is difficult viewing and very demanding. But isn’t the function of poetry to use an almost codified personal language to express ideas? Then why is the same practice vilified in filmmaking? Aren’t images as malleable as words? Tarkovsky’s films establish a visual analog for poetry, a codifying of imagery into abstract thoughts and emotions that tap deeply into the subconscious and resonate in the way poetry does.
Nostalghia is the story of a renowned Russian poet, Andrei Gortchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), on a research mission in the Tuscan hills of Italy for a book on a minor Russian composer who studied in Italy. With his beautiful Italian translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), he visits a natural hot spring where villagers hope for immortality, and where he meets the eccentric Domenico (the great Swedish actor Erland Josephson, on loan from Ingmar Bergman), a man frightened by the spiritual malaise of the world who had once locked up his family for seven years waiting for the end of the world.
We soon see that Andrei inhabits two worlds, as most poets do – the world of his dreams and recollection of his boyhood farm house and village, and the waking world where he is fascinated by Domenico. Ignoring Eugenia’s need for love (in a memorable scene she watches women pray for children to a statue of the Virgin Mary), he visits Domenico. The old man asks him for a single favorâ€¦ to light a candle and carry it across the pool at the hot spring, as the villagers, fearing he is insane, won’t let him. Eugenia berates Andrei for his intellectual aloofness and leaves. Andrei gets drunk and reads poetry in the ruins of a villa.
Eugenia calls from Rome, telling Andrei she’s seen Domenico and that he’s part of a demonstration in the streets of Rome. We see Domenico high atop a statue, giving a speech for brotherhood before pouring gasoline on himself in an act of self-immolation. Andrei takes a candle to the now empty pool, and carries it across, barely succeeding before his heart fails him. While Domenico has been defeated by the thought of a possible future, Andrei has been crippled by his nostalgia for childhood.
Like the films of Alain Resnais, Tarkovsky’s films are obsessed with memory. While I think some of Tarkovsky’s work – namely his mind-bending science fiction film
Stalker and the even more personal
Mirror – are more compelling films, 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. Tarkovsky’s slowly tracking camera, as always, glides lovingly over images of incredible beauty and ugliness, perhaps best exemplified by Andrei’s visit to Domenico’s ruin of a house, where it literally rains inside. Co-written by Italian poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra (a frequent collaborator of Michelangelo Antionioni), Nostalghia haunts the memory long after it’s over.