“Nostalghia” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1983)

Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was a gifted filmmaker noted for his uniquely expressive style.  Working in Russia under restrictive conditions, he was only able to make seven feature films over his last twenty-four years, but each was a fascinating and challenging work of cinematic expression.  In particular, Tarkovsky was progressively more sensitive to the possibilities of cinematic expression transcending the limits of textual expression and directly invoking the wider range and complexity of human consciousness.  Increasingly, his films became more and more attempts to directly represent his own personal feelings, with minimal reference to schematic models or thoughts. One of the most extreme examples of this tendency was his penultimate film, Nostalghia  (1983).

I have discussed Tarkovsky’s aesthetics in connection with his earlier films – Ivan's Childhood (1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), The Mirror (1975), and Stalker (1979)  – and we could probably say of these, the film most directly comparable to Nostalghia is his most inward and personal work, The Mirror.  Both of these films abandon conventional plot structures entirely and seek to conjure up a state of mind.  In this connection, Tarkovsky once commented that his aesthetic intentions for cinema lay in an off-the-beaten-track direction [1]:
“I don’t follow a strict narrative development and logical connections. I don’t like looking for justifications for the protagonist’s actions. One of the reasons why I became involved in cinema is because I saw too many films that didn’t correspond to what I expected from cinematic language.”
And he added on another occasion that what he wanted was to capture a state of mind [2]:
“I was not interested in the development of the plot, in the chain of events – with each film I feel less and less need for them. I have always been interested in a person’s inner world, and for me it was far more natural to make a journey into the psychology that informed the hero’s attitude to life, into the literary and cultural traditions that are the foundation of his spiritual world.”
You might think, okay, so Tarkovsky wanted to abandon plot structures, but surely he must have had specific ideas that he wanted to present to his viewers.  We don’t always have to restrict ourselves to stories; we can just present our thoughts and ideas.  But think again, because Tarkovsky also wanted to eschew explicitly articulated ideas in his artistic creations, too.  He had higher aims, as he once remarked [3]:
"The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
And presumably Nostalghia is an instantiation of these anti-narrative inclinations of Tarkovsky’s.  Nevertheless, there is something of a story to Nostalghia.  It concerns the activities of a Russian poet and writer, Andrei Gorchakov, who has come to Italy to do research for a book he intends to write on the experiences of an 18th century Russian composer who lived in Italy for a few years.  While in Italy, Gorchakov feels ‘nostalghia’ – a custom term for the special longing Russians feel for their homeland when they are away.  But more generally, Gorchakov feels alienation, and that is the primary theme of this film.  Alienation emerged as a major cultural theme, and a key notional element of Existentialism [4], in the twentieth century, and it has represented the quizzical sense of absence and frustration for some people that has come along with modernity [5].  I have earlier discussed how alienation has been a particularly important characterological theme in film, notably in the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, and we can say that Nostalghia is yet another work that adds to this aesthetic collection [6].  Concerning his artistic intentions on these  matters, Tarkovsky was explicit [2]:
“Ultimately, I wanted Nostalghia to be free of anything irrelevant or incidental that would stand in the way of my principal objective: the portrayal of someone in a state of profound alienation from the world and himself, unable to find a balance between reality and the harmony for which he longs, in a state of nostalghia provoked not only by his remoteness from his country but also by a global yearning for the wholeness of existence.”
For this voyage into existential alienation, Tarkovsky chose some collaborators with experience in this area.  His screenplay collaborator was Tonino Guerra, who had co-scripted a number of films with Antonioni: L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), Blow-Up (1966), and Zabriskie Point (1970).   And he also cast in a prominent role, Erland Josephson, who appeared in 14 Ingmar Bergman films.  Tarkovsky tells this tale with 
  • careful attention to the insertion of atmospheric ambient sounds and 
  • many moody 3-to-4-minute tracking and very slow zoom shots,
which, despite their often seemingly random appearance, must have required careful planning in order to execute effectively. 

The story of Nostalghia, such as it is, passes through four phases.

1.  Andrei and Domiziana in Italy
As already mentioned, the Russian writer Andrei Gorchakov (played by Oleg Yankovsky – he played the father of the main character in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror) has come to Italy to write about an 18th century Russian composer, Pavel Sasnovsky, who lived in Italy for a few years before returning to Russia (where he committed suicide).  Gorchakov is accompanied by his attractive translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), and we soon see that these two embody contrasting types.  Eugenia embraces modernism; while Gorchakov is alienated from the world he sees around him.  When she invites him to go look at Piero della Francesca’s famous painting “Madonna del Parto”, he glumly responds by saying, “I’m tired of these sickeningly beautiful sights.”  Later when Eugenia is reading some poetry (written by Andrei Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky) in translation, Gorchakov remarks that “poetry is untranslatable, like all art.”  This suggests to us that Gorchakov perceives insurmountable cultural barriers as part of his nostalghia problem.

Later they check-in to a hotel, where in a long 4-minute shot Gorchakov is shown listlessly falling asleep in his bed and lapsing into dreams (shown in sepia-toned monochrome images).

2.  Domenico
The next day Gorchakov and Eugenia stop by St. Catherine’s hot pool, where people seeking cures for their ailments wade in the steaming water.  The people in the pool gossip about a man, Domenico (Erland Josephson) walking by the side of the pool, who they say is mad.  They say that in anticipation of the apocalypse, he once kept his wife and children locked up in his home for seven years.  Curiously, Gorchakov takes an interest in the reclusive Domenico and wants to talk to him.  After some persistence, Gorchakov arranges to meet Domenico in his severely leaky home, where he listens to the alleged madman’s odd pronouncements.  Domenico tells him,    
“Before, I just wanted to save my family.  Now I want to save the whole world.”
Domenico then tells Gorchakov that if he can walk the length of St. Catherine’s Pool holding a lighted candle, it will save the world.  But the people there assume he is crazy and won’t let him enter the pool, so he begs Gorchakov to assume his world-saving task.

3.  Eugenia and Dreams
Back with Eugenia at the hotel, Gorchakov tells her about Domenico’s lighted-candle task.  But Eugenia, who has been hoping that Gorchakov would take a romantic interest in her, doesn’t want to hear  about his odd obsessions.  In a dramatic four-minute monologue, she complains that he is only interested in Madonnas and not interested in engaging with real life.  Afterwards, they engage in a bitter quarrel.

After Eugenia storms out, Gorchakov, who seems to be in declining health, lapses into further sepia-toned dreams, which indicate that Gorchakov identifies himself with Domenico.

4.  Desperation
With Eugenia having left him, Gorchakov decides to return home.  But just before he is to leave,  he gets a phone call from Eugenia, who is now in Rome.  She tells him that Domenico has come there and is making cryptic speeches at a city monument.  She also says that Domenico wants to  know if Gorchakov has carried out the lighted-candle ritual in the pool.

We now move into parallel action, with Domenico shouting out his concerns for a fallen world and Gorchakov headed for St. Catherine’s Pool to carry out his postponed ritual.  Domenico’s raving remarks implicitly contain elements condemning rationalism and modernity for promoting individualism and disconnecting people from an organically connected world.  Some examples of this are:
    “Society must become united again instead of being fragmented.”
    . . .
    “Just look at nature and you will see life is simple.”
    . . .
    “We must go back to the main foundations of life.”
Then he pours gasoline over his body and immolates himself.  So the character of Domenico emerges as the bearer of Tarkovsky’s main message, and Tarkovsky has commented about this [2]:
“The character of Domenico, at first sight somewhat puzzling, has a particular bearing on the hero’s state of mind.  This frightened man to whom society offers no protection, finds in himself the strength and nobility of spirit to oppose a reality he sees as degrading to man. Once a mathematics teacher and now an ‘outsider’, he flouts his own ‘littleness’ and decides to speak about the catastrophic state of today’s world, appealing to people to make a stand. In the eyes of ‘normal’ people he appears mad, but Gorchakov responds to his idea—born of deep suffering— that people must be rescued not separately and individually but all together from the pitiless insanity of modern civilisation…”
Finally, in the film's penultimate, nine-minute, shot, we see that Gorchakov has arrived at the pool when it has been drained for servicing.  Nevertheless, he painstakingly and desperately carries out the ritual, anyway; and he finally manages to place the lighted candle he has been carrying at the far end of the pool just before collapsing.

The final shot seems to be a dream image showing Gorchakov sitting on the ground with Domenico’s dog in an imaginary setting that combines a modernist foreground with a cathedral backdrop – seemingly the desired metaphorical resolution of the divisive cultural forces that had driven his symptoms of alienation.  Concerning that mysterious final shot, Tarkovsky had this  to say [2]:
“I would concede that the final shot of Nostalghia has an element of metaphor, when I bring the Russian house inside the Italian cathedral. It is a constructed image which smacks of literariness: a model of the hero’s state, of the division within him which prevents him from living as he has up till now. Or perhaps, on the contrary, it is his new wholeness in which the Tuscan hills and the Russian countryside come together indissolubly; he is conscious of them as inherently his own, merged into his being and his blood, but at the same time reality is enjoining him to separate these things by returning to Russia.”

Overall, Nostalghia is so slow-moving and enigmatic as to sometimes seem almost catatonic.  Nevertheless, it has a haunting feeling and addresses an important malaise of our times [7].  As critic Kalvin Henely pointed out [8]:
“Tarkovsky’s films remain so important today because of their ineffable spirituality, which has all but vanished in today’s technological world marked by information, science, and an increasing detachment from nature.”

  1.  Patrick Bureau,  “Andrei Tarkovsky: I Am for a Poetic Cinema” (1962), from Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, (John Gianvito, ed.), University of Mississippi, Jackson, (2006), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky NOSTALGHIA (1983)”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXV:8), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, (17 October 2017).   
  2. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky NOSTALGHIA (1983)”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXV:8), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, (17 October 2017).   
  3. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, University of Texas Press, Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky The Mirror 1974”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:13), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (16 November 2004).    
  4. Steven Crowell, “Existentialism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (9 March 2015).   
  5. David Leopold, “Alienation”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (30 August 2018).       
  6. See, for example, the following articles that discuss alienation on this site:
  7. J. Hoberman, “A Man Without a Nation, in Italy”, The New York Times, (24 Jan 2014).   
  8. Kalvin Henely, “Nostalghia”, Slant, (30 May 2013).    

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