❉ Tarkovsky’s penultimate feature film is about faith, madness and frustrated dreams.
“I have to say that when I first saw all the material shot the film I found it a spectacle of unrelieved gloom… This was not something I had set out to achieve… The camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming:I had been worn down by my separation from my family and from the way of life I was used to, by working under quite unfamiliar conditions, even by using a foreign language.”
-Andrei Tarkovsky on ‘Nostalgia,’ writing in his book ‘Sculpting in Time.’
Rather like Tarkovsky’s previous film ‘Stalker’ (1979), ‘Nostalgia’ embodies Robert Louis Stevenson’s conceit that, “To travel hopefully is better then to arrive.” It could be argued that it’s a running theme through Tarkovsky’s work. But while ‘Stalker’ focusses on the quest itself, ‘Nostalgia’ is more preoccupied with its end.
Russian poet Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) is in Italy researching the life of composer Sasnovsky who worked in Italy for many years but upon returning to Russia committed suicide. Sasnovsky is based upon Maksym Berezovsky (1745-1777), though it’s unclear whether Berezovsky actually did kill himself or died of scarlet fever.
Gorchakov, who has a heart condition, is accompanied by Italian translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano, looking like she just stepped out of a Renaissance painting). Their relationship is somewhat awkward. It soon becomes apparent that Eugenia is in love with him, but angered by his unavailability. Gorchakov dreams constantly of his family and his home which resembles the farmhouses so many of Tarkovsky’s protagonists, as well as himself, grew up in. At the opening of the film, Eugenia takes Gorchakov to a church to see a painting; ‘Madonna del Parto’ by Piero della Francesca, but he’s “tired of seeing these sickeningly beautiful sights.” Similaraly, Tarkovsky’s Italian co-writer, Tony Guerra, took him on a tour of Italy to scout spectacular locations, but he opted for more sombre settings. The painting depicts the Virgin Mary whilst pregnant, and despite Eugenia claiming to have cried upon seeing it for the first time, she takes offence when the male sacristan answers her question about why women appear more faithful with the claim that women are meant to have children and raise them with self-sacrifice. To prove his point he shows her a ceremony in which women pray for fertility and a newlywed young woman releases a flock of tiny birds from within the robes of clothing a statue of the Madonna. She looks unimpressed.
With the hindsight of actress Natalya Bonderchuck’s revelation during a 2010 interview that she and Tarkovsky had an affair whilst attending the Cannes Film Festival with ‘Solaris’ (1972), it’s tempting to wonder if Eugenia and Gorchakov’s relationship doesn’t have some autobiographical elements, and since this is a Tarkovsky film, the answer is probably “yes.” Bonderchuck was utterly enamoured by the older Tarkovsky, but the affair was cut off suddenly and unceremoniously the moment they arrived back in Russia and he greeted his wife and family.
Gorchakov never gives into temptation, however. His dreams of Russia are occasionally invaded by Eugenia, sometimes subtly, where she appears as a winged angel in the background, other times more overtly, like when he dreams of his wife embracing her as if to comfort her in her pain. He’s aware of her desire, even before she breaks down and belligerently confesses it, but he’s the saint Tarkovsky perhaps wished he could have been, albeit an unwitting one.
All of Tarkovsky’s films deal with faith and spirituality, and ‘Nostalgia,’ his penultimate feature film, shows his increasing move towards religious faith, as opposed to thinly veiled allegories for it. This might be because it was his first film outside the Soviet Union, or it may demonstrate an increasing confidence as an artist. Perhaps it’s both. Like the fictional Gorchakov, Tarkovsky would never get to see his homeland again.
In Gorchakov’s case, it is not Eugenia who causes him to stay, but a strange mystic they encounter whilst staying in a village built around an ancient mineral pool blessed by Saint Catherine (presumable the Saint Catherine of Sienna). The mystic is named Domenico (Erland Josephson), and Gorchakov finds a common bond with him after hearing that he kept his family locked up away from the world for years before the authorities finally intervened.
Gorchakov visits Domenico in his gutted and derelict house, and doesn’t believe him to be mad; he thinks “he has faith,” and is struck by his uncompromising vision. Domenico declares the world “all wrong,” and asks his new disciple to carry out a task for him; to save the world by carrying a lit candle from one side of the sacred pool to another. Domenico can’t do it, since his reputation as a “madman” means he’s stopped whenever he tries himself; the locals think he wants to drown himself. The pool, like the planet Solaris and The Room in ‘Stalker’ is another of Tarkovsky’s seemingly inanimate objects or places that is perceived to have mystical powers. Of course, the power of The Room and the mineral pool of Saint Catherine may be real, or maybe simply articles of faith, which is precisely why Tarkovsky was so dissatisfied with the unambiguous ‘Solaris.’
If nothing else, ‘Nostalgia’ is a film about frustrated dreams. Emotionally drained, Eugenia storms off and goes back to Rome and her rich but distant boyfriend. She and Gorchakov say a tender farewell by phone, but it’s polite and repressed. She tells her boyfriend she’s going to buy cigarettes; it’s unclear if she’ll return. As Gorchakov says to a little girl watching him get inebriated on vodka in a flooded ruin, “Unspoken feelings are unforgettable.” Eugenia visits a rally where Domenico declares that we must hold onto the ambition to do things like build the pyramids, even if we don’t actually do it, then publicly sets fire to himself, but only after Gorchakov falsely claims to have fulfilled his promise. It’s only after this tragedy that Gorchakov actually carries out his sacred duty.
While the film is made up of long, meditative sequences, the six-minute single take depicting Gorchakov’s three attempts to cross the pool with the candle are its main set piece. He arrives to find the pool drained for cleaning, which ironically means that Domenico could have performed the task himself after all. As he walks across the empty bottom of the pool, the candle goes out twice. It should be boring, but after nearly two hours of character development, he might as well be diffusing a bomb. It’s made all the more intense by the fact that his heart his finally giving out. He does finally succeed, but at the expense of never returning home.
Tarkovsky didn’t return home either; he defected after Nostalgia was complete and made only one more film, ‘The Sacrifice’ (1986) before succumbing to lung cancer. Gorchakov ends his journey sitting in the grounds of his Russian house , reunited with his deceased dog, within the walls of a vast, Italian cathedral. Whether it’s some form of afterlife or death-hallucination is open to interpretation. Regardless, in a way, we all go home in the end.
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022