One of the more depressing developments in the market for art house film has been the tendency to collapse the market for world cinema into one large amalgamated market for art house film. What this means in practice is that once directors like Paolo Sorrentino or Yorgos Lanthimos earn their stripes in their local markets, they abandon their native film industries and begin making English-language films funded by production houses and government bodies from across the European continent. There are excellent financial reasons for this development and the trend does ensure that non-commercial directors get to spend their time making films rather than chasing funding but it does mean that art house cinema is ceasing to function as a window onto distant cultures. It also means that the gap between established directors and aspiring directors is widening, hence the recent tendency to fill Palme D’Or shortlists with the same old names and the same old faces. At a time when art house cinema should be working to include younger and more diverse voices, this amalgamation of distinct voices into one undifferentiated pan-European drawl is a massive and systemic problem. However, the problem is not exactly new as art house directors have been abandoning their homeland for about as long as there have been art house directors.
By the end of the 1970s, Andrei Tarkovsky’s relationship with the Soviet film industry lay in tatters. Despite a growing international reputation, Tarkovsky was finding it increasingly difficult to get films made in his native Russia. For every film he managed to produce, there was a film that never got off the drawing board and even those films he did manage to complete wound up trapped in administrative limbo for years at a time as studios simply refused to release his work. This impasse came to something of a head in 1979 when Tarkovsky’s international reputation allowed him to travel to Italy in order to make a feature-length documentary about his preparations to make another film. While the documentary Voyage in Time was successful enough to guarantee funding for Tarkovsky’s next film, the decision to make his sixth film with a combination of Italian and Soviet money appears to have triggered a personal crisis that would conclude with Tarkovsky’s refusal to return to the Soviet Union. Nostalgia is the film born of that personal crisis.
Right from the very first shot and the very first line a dialogue, Nostalgia bristles with the ambivalence of the émigré. A small car drives across a beautifully photographed field and a woman gets out and admires the view. Turning back to the car, she expresses her appreciation in Russian only for her companion to growl that she should be speaking in Italian. The woman is named Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) and she is serving as guide and companion to a Soviet poet named Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) who has been allowed to visit Italy as part of his plan to write the biography of a Russian composer.
The couple have driven hundreds of miles to a convent in the Tuscan countryside in order to visit the Madonna del Parto, an obscure fresco depicting a pregnant Virgin Mary painted by the 15th Century Italian painter Piero della Francesca. Despite insisting on the lengthy journey, Gorchakov refuses to step inside, leaving his companion Eugenia to encounter both the fresco and the extraordinary acts of female devotion it inspires. Puzzled by the women who debase themselves before the figure of the Madonna, Eugenio asks a priest what it is they hope to achieve only for the priest to respond with a misogynistic diatribe about how women can’t be expected to understand spiritual crises as their role in life is simply to produce children. The scene is beautifully photographed but while it is Eugenia who retains our sympathies, it is hard to ignore the feeling that she has become the butt of some vast and undisclosed cosmic joke. Aside from doing a good job of establishing Eugenia as a character whose desire for spiritual fulfilment is hampered by pride, the scene also sets the film’s terms of engagement and announces the arrival of that uniquely Tarkovskyian combination of profound yearning after spiritual truth and extreme cynicism about the means through which said truths might be achieved. Why else would Gorchakov insist upon making a pilgrimage to an obscure convent and then balk at the idea of actually visiting the place?
Nostalgia is a film that is fuelled by Tarkovsky’s unhappiness at the realisation that he would most likely never be able to return home to the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky explores these feelings through a complex narrative structure known as a mis-en-abime. The structure begins with the figure of Gorchakov, a respected Russian poet who visits Italy in preparation for writing the biography of a composer who left Russia a serf and returned a celebrated artist only to wind up ending his own life in a fit of despair. The fact that Gorchakov’s situation resembles that of Tarkovsky is evident from the details of the two men’s lives, from the fact that Gorchakov’s first name is Andrei, and from the fact that the film is littered with references to Tarkovsky’s real-world films and writings. The second level of the structure revolves around the subject of Gorchakov’s book, a man who left Russia a slave only to find success and later return home before killing himself in a fit of despair. The life of the composer thus serves as a warning to both Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. While Tarkovsky blurs the boundaries between himself and his protagonist, he also blurs the boundaries between his protagonist and the composer in a series of dreams that could just as easily feature the family of the poet as the family of the composer. The term mis-en-abime comes from the French and refers to the practice of painting blocked up windows to look like real windows through which one could see the world. Thus, the world is literally placed in an abyss, a truth refracted back up to the surface through layers of text and metaphor all pointing straight to the anguish that Tarkovsky was feeling about his looming exile.
Nostalgia is a film that revels in long, exquisitely photographed and carefully choreographed shots in which things simply unfold as the camera sweeps back and forth along a set of rails. We first encounter this technique in the convent but Tarkovsky returns to it again and again as he drives home Gorchakov’s feelings of alienation from a world that is no longer making sense. Some of these shots are nothing short of jaw-dropping including the scene in which the poet falls asleep in a Spartan hotel room while rain forms puddles on the floor. In another scene, the camera glides back and forth along the side of a hot spring while local villagers gossip about the madman amongst them.
This madman is not Gorchakov but Domenico (Erland Josephson), a man made famous by his conviction that the world was about to end and his resulting decision to lock his family inside their home for seven years in the hope of protecting them from the coming apocalypse. Desperate for any source of spiritual nourishment, Gorchakov seeks out the man who has now been released from a mental hospital and left to roam the streets of a decaying spa town. Sensing their sensed desire for some sort of meaning, Domenico explains to Gorchakov how carrying a lit candle from one side of the hot spring to the other without the extinguishing the flame would almost certainly save the world. Gorchakov promises to complete the task on Domenico’s behalf but promptly forgets until the end of the film.
Tarkovsky scholars have been quick to point out that the misogynistic diatribe delivered by the priest at the beginning of the film may have been uncomfortably close to the director’s actual opinions. Thus, despite Eugenia having left the convent having ‘won’ her engagement with the priest, Tarkovsky spends the rest of the film driving home the wisdom of the old man’s words. The humiliation of Eugenia begins with a lovely little scene in which she drops into a starting position and then tries to run in high heels only to fall flat on her face. This act of silliness is never explained but it does resemble a moment in the convent when the priest nearly convinces her to drop to her knees in order to pray. At the last second, Eugenia straightens up and thus preserves her dignity but this dignity turns out to be fleeting as circumstances conspire to render her ridiculous. Despite bristling at the priest’s words about the role of a woman being to bear children, Eugenia becomes ridiculously over-invested in the idea of becoming Gorchakov’s lover and when the Russian refuses to return her advances she tears off her clothes and complains about his arrogance before quitting her job and returning to Rome. The character is then revisited later in the film when she calls Gorchakov and informs him that she is blissfully happy and in love with a deeply spiritual man despite the fact that the audience can see her boyfriend is a mobster who appears rather indifferent to her well-being.
Aside from being disappointingly misogynistic, Eugenia’s story highlights the difficulties involved in trying to imbue your life with meaning and secure a sense of spiritual connection to the world. By the end of the film, Eugenia has emerged as a comic character because she rejects both the advice given to her by the priest and the indifference displayed by Gorchakov only to wind up in love with a loveless and impassively misogynistic patriarch. Eugenia is a comic character but also a point of comparison, warning Gorchakov of the dangers of both rejecting your socially-determined path and failing to notice when you wound up locked into the role that society had given you all along.
Like Tarkovsky, Gorchakov understands that he cannot make the same mistake as the composer and return home. However, he also recognises that failure to return home would involve severing all ties to his old life and rebuilding a new life entirely from scratch. The reason the poet becomes obsessed with the madman is that Domenico recognised the emptiness of his own life and acted decisively to resolve the problem even though it transported him beyond the bounds of propriety and straight into the madhouse. In fact, Tarkovsky returns to Domenico at the end of the film with an absolutely extraordinary sequence in which the madman stands atop a statue and rants about the injustice and hollowness of existence before setting himself on fire. However, ever-sceptical of easy answers, Tarkovsky complicates the moment by having Domenico botch the details of his own suicide. Rather than delivering a powerful speech and setting himself on fire while Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays in the background, Domenico winds up ranting like a derelict and setting himself on fire while a defective tape player moans, groans, and briefly plays a tinny recording before cutting out, leaving us with a soundtrack of Domenico’s inarticulate screams. Domenico’s descent from spiritual gravitas to black comic pathos recalls both Eugenia’s fall from grace and Tarkovsky films like Stalker, Solaris, and Mirror where big-ideas and high-concept meaning-makers inevitably unravel leaving their protagonists utterly confused, utterly disconnected, and utterly alone.
To describe the film’s climax as audacious would be something of an understatement. Now convinced that he will never go home and never see his wife again, Gorchakov commits himself to the fulfilment of Domenico’s final desire by taking a lit candle across a bubbling spring. Unfortunately, by the time Gorchkov returns to the spa town, the spring has been drained and so he is forced to take his lit candle and shuffle through a load of puddles and across a load of rubbish that had been dumped in the pool. With absolutely breath-taking audacity, Tarkovsky films Gorchakov’s journey across the pool in a ten-minute long take that is both unbearably tense and sadistically boring. Time and again, Gorchakov shifts his body and his hand back and forth in an effort to protect the flame from the winter wind. Time and again, the flame goes out and Gorchakov is forced back to the far side of the pool. When he finally reaches the other side, he collapses with happiness and people can be seen applauding in the background. As the credits start to roll, we are transported back into Gorchakov’s dream where a figure combining elements of the composer, the poet, and the director basks by a Russian hovel rebuilt inside the ruins of an Italian Cathedral. Enigmatic of expression, the figure may not know happiness but he does finally have a place.
Andrei Tarkovsky was a singular genius and Nostalgia is arguably his most beautiful and thematically uncluttered film. All of Tarkovsky’s films are personal and all of them deal directly with both humanity’s search for spiritual truth and the universe’s petulant refusal to supply us with a suitable sense of purpose. Tarkovsky was a deeply spiritual man who yearned for some connection to the truth, but he was also a fiercely intelligent man who knew this truth would not be forthcoming. Many critics who approach the work of Tarkovsky allow themselves to become snared in the references, structures, and conceits he uses to represent sources of spiritual truth. In his historical films Andrei Rublev and Ivan’s Childhood this basic philosophical dynamic is embedded in explorations of medieval Christianity and the plight of child soldiers. In his science fiction films Solaris and Stalker, the dynamic is embedded in baroque science fictional conceits like a world that thinks and a room that grants wishes. In his experimental film Mirror, the dynamic is concealed by a structure comparing the film’s scenes to moments flashing before the eyes of a dying man. In every film, Tarkovsky elaborates these vast meaning-making structures only for their graces to bounce off the toughened hides of his broken and cynical protagonists. Nostalgia is an important film in Tarkovsky’s canon as its contemporary setting and more conventional narrative structure means that its familiar themes are presented to us without any protective distractions. Gorchakov is a man who is lost on the seas of life and while he looks first to the life of a composer and then to the experiences of a mad man for some kind of sustenance, he eventually comes to realise that the only meanings we get are those we create for ourselves. Domenico was not a holy man because he saw the end of the world or realised that we need to stop polluting our own drinking water, he was a holy man because he found a role and stuck to it right to the very end. By setting himself on fire and dying like a medieval prophet, he crossed his own hot spring and died with all the spiritual strength that the universe had to offer. By choosing to carry out Domenico’s suggestion to cross the hot spring with a lit candle, Gorchakov was bringing order to chaos and investing in the success of at least one task.
Nostalgia is a beautiful, thoughtful, and challenging film that exemplifies Tarkovsky’s belief that by presenting the audience with evocative images and allowing them the time to reach their own conclusions, a film could allow people to determine their own truths. Some of you will watch Nostalgia and find a vindication of religious faith; others will watch the film and conclude that Domenico was right about the ending of the world. This reviewer crossed his own hot spring by realising that meaning is something we create for ourselves and that the only truths the universe has to offer are beautiful and hospitable lies.