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Requiem for a homesick Russian exile
on 10 November 2014
Nostalghia (1983), Andrei Tarkovsky's sixth and penultimate film is in essence an extraordinarily beautiful meditation on Russian nostalghia (spelt with an 'h' on the director's insistence) - "the particular state of mind which assails Russians who are far from their native land. I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, their past, their culture, their native places, their families and friends; an attachment which they carry with them all their lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them." In his highly recommended book of reflections on cinema Sculpting in Time Tarkovsky makes much of the fact that Russians are "bad travelers" and confesses to being one himself. Thoroughly disillusioned with Soviet bureaucracy, the cause of so much heartache throughout his career, Nostalghia was born out of the friendship that had started around 1975 with Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra whose regular collaborator Michelangelo Antonioni had attended the Moscow Film Festival that year and had insisted on seeing Mirror, a film the authorities wanted to bury. Guerra and Tarkovsky wrote together the script for what was later to be known as Tempo di Viaggio (A Time of Travel), a 63 minute TV film for RAI. Out of that experience Tarkovsky saw a chance to escape the bureaucratic quagmire that was delaying the release of Mirror and hampering his preparations for Stalker, a film which had a deeply troubled shoot (it had to be shot in effect twice because of faulty film stock) and which was finally released in 1979. The making of Tempo di Vaggio involved living in Italy for 7 months and the experience fed directly into the script for Nostalghia which the TV film turned out to be a preliminary sketch for. Key here was the fact that not all of Tarkovsky's family was granted a visa. Presumably fearing their celebrity director might defect, the Soviet authorities made his young son Andrei stay behind in the USSR. Homesickness (a more correct definition of the feeling evoked by 'Nostalghia') assailed him with a vengeance along with the knowledge that he was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill him. A sick man living and working in Italy with new people, communicating in a second language he was only slowly picking up and missing his family, he was destabilized by the knowledge that the Russian film industry resisted him and that Party apparatchiks were machinating behind his back in Moscow while he was gone. It is not surprising perhaps that Nostalghia amounts to a jaundiced and extremely pessimistic view of a beautiful country most foreign directors new to the place concentrate on celebrating, but which for Tarkovsky marked the parameters of one artist's final days cut off from his cultural roots so as to be virtually a dead man walking.
The film is devoted totally to depicting a state of mind so that external events are few. Nothing much actually happens over the film's 2-hour duration. Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky who played the father in Mirror) is a middle aged writer/musicologist who has come to Italy to research the life of Pavel Sosnovsky (actually Maximilian Beryozovsky), an 18th century Russian composer who returned to Russia to hang himself after living in Italy for several years. Gorchakov is at the end of his sojourn and has come to Tuscany with his beautiful Italian translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) to visit the church at Arezzo to see Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto (the "Madonna of Parturition"). Gorchakov is morose, taciturn and withdrawn. He needs to go home but his spiritual paralysis prevents him. His depressed state is depicted immediately with his refusal to enter the church with Eugenia after having driven across Italy specifically to see it. He says: "I'm tired of these sickeningly beautiful sights. I want nothing more just for myself. That's enough." He means the whole world here, not just the painting. Later they check into a hotel in Bagno Vignoni, a small town in the Tuscan hills famous for St. Catherine's Pool, an outdoor naturally heated spa whose waters are supposed to prolong life. Eugenia is sexually attracted to Gorchakov, but he is too self-absorbed to react. In the first half of the film scenes between the two showing her increasing frustration and his pervading spiritual funk alternate with stylized visions of Mother Russia. These visions (not flashbacks) range from very short reaction shots (his wife [Patrizia Terreno] shaking her hair) to longer scenes (his country dacha and his family waiting for him) always shot in sepia tones which contrast with the colored reality of present day Bagno Vignoni. The next morning Gorchakov and Eugenia meet the film's third important character, Domenico (Erland Josephson). He is a reclusive madman who once locked up his wife and children for 7 years believing he was saving their lives in a world doomed to the Apocalypse. He now lives alone in a strange warehouse-type house which Gorchakov insists on visiting. There Domenico gets Gorchakov to promise to carry out his latest crazy scheme `to save the world'. He must carry a lit candle the whole length of St. Catherine's Pool without the light once going out. Gorchakov is intrigued by Domenico's firm spiritual faith, but accepts the charge only flippantly. Following a final bust-up with Eugenia after which she leaves for Rome, the film fractures into a long mysterious series of dreams, visions and sheer fantasy (I will come to this later) before we are taken to Rome to see Eugenia and her Mafiosi boyfriend. She phones Gorchakov telling him that Domenico is now in Rome mounting a public demonstration in a square from atop the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Domenico wants to know if Gorchakov has carried out `his half' of their unwritten pact. Reluctantly, as Domenico immolates himself 'to save the world' Gorchakov carries the candle into the now-drained St. Catherine's Pool and (in a stunning almost 9 minute single take) performs his task with obvious physical difficulty. He dies of a heart attack as he plants the candle at the other end of the Pool and the film finishes on a clearly fantastical sepia shot of Gorchakov sitting in front of a pool beside a dog, staring at us as the camera backs away slowly revealing his dacha behind him and then around it the outside walls of an Italian cathedral which completely enclose both him and his homeland. Snow falls and Tarkovsky's dedication to his mother appears on the screen as it fades to darkness.
One way of approaching Nostalghia is to refer to what Tarkovsky himself said about it in Sculpting in Time. There he is surprisingly concise: "Ultimately I wanted Nostalghia to be free of anything irrelevant or incidental that would stand in the way of my principle 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 NOSTALGIA provoked not only by his remoteness from home but also by a global yearning for the wholeness of existence." The desire to cut away "anything irrelevant or incidental" is shown immediately by the film's symmetrical narrative structure which is more rigorously concise than in any other Tarkovsky film. Nostalghia begins and ends in sepia visions of Gorchakov's homeland: the first a shot looking away from his country dacha across a meadow down over a lake with figures wandering away from the camera, a horse and a dog; the second a shot looking up at the dacha with Gorchakov sitting in front with the same dog. In both shots we hear the same Russian folk song on the soundtrack. The film begins and ends in the same place with the same folk song. At the film's beginning the folk song soon gives way to a fragment from Verdi's Requiem (the opening "Requiem aeturnum") which fades as we come to the second shot (in color) of the car bearing Gorchakov and Eugenia which drives into the frame. At the film's conclusion the same Verdi music returns as Gorchakov plants the candle (in color) and continues into the film's concluding sepia shot where it fades back into the folk song. The inference here is that everything between the two snatches of Verdi (and the framing two snatches of folk song) amounts to a requiem mass for a man. That dead man is obviously Gorchakov and the subject of the film is his `living death' caused by his "profound alienation from the world and himself".
Also inferred by this double-frame is the presence of Italy (Verdi) and Russia (the folk song), the two countries between which Gorchakov is torn and with which he can't quite reconcile himself. He becomes here a symbol of Russia and a statement of the Westerner/Slavophile debate that consumed Russian history in the 19th century. Tarkovsky already touched on this in Mirror by having a section from Pushkin's 1836 letter to Chaadayev read out which underlined the great poet's Slavophile belief that Russia should be proud of her own culture and traditions which are based jointly on aspects both East and West. It is significant that important sections of Nostalghia (Eugenia's visit to the church at Arezzo and the St. Catherine's Pool in Bagno Vignoni) center on the historical figure of St. Catherine of Siena. She was an advocate for the reunification of the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and the Western (Roman Papal) Church during the Great Schism of the Ecumenical Church. Gorchakov can't reconcile himself to two culture traditions and neither can his country. His naïve solution is simply to "abolish frontiers between states." The film's final image is deeply ambiguous - does it suggest the hero has reconciled himself to belonging to two countries at the same time (that he has brought Eastern and Western cultures together), or does it simply state the hero's (and Russia's) main problem of not being able to live in either one or the other? This ambiguity is typical of all Tarkovsky's films, but what is less typical is the stress throughout the main body of the narrative on a continued symmetrical depiction of Gorchakov's (Russia's?) spiritual paralysis - the nostalgia of the title.
The film is split in two halves which almost precisely mirror each other with Gorchakov's spiritual emptiness mirroring the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary world in general. The scene immediately following the opening credits has Eugenia enter a church and is designed to point out her lack of faith and obsession with modern material values. Dressed in designer clothes, she is asked by the church sacristan why she has come and she answers, "I'm just looking" as if she is in some department store. The sacristan than tells her she should kneel which she starts to do but stops partly because she doesn't want to get her clothes dirty, but mainly because she has no faith. To pray would be hypocritical. In answer to her question, "why is it always only women who pray?" the sacristan tells her women should marry and raise children with patience and devotion. A modern woman, she scorns this traditional thinking, but the following narrative demonstrates that her failed search for a good man (and with it we imagine children) has left her feeling sad and empty - a state typical perhaps of the modern world and summed up with the depiction of her shady Mafiosi boyfriend as her fate. The religious procession of women praying for children with the miraculous image of birds flying out of the belly of the statue of St. Catherine (and underlined by the Piero della Francesca painting of the pregnant Madonna) depicts a warm spiritually-alive feeling which Eugenia and modern Italy (which she to some extent symbolizes) lack. This whole scene is answered by the scene in the second half of the film of Domenico's demonstration and self-immolation in Rome to save this materialistic spiritually dead world. Remember many years ago he gave up his family by imprisoning them. In an earlier flashback his son asks him on being released: "Is this the end of the world?" For Domenico a spiritually dead world (a material world without faith - a kind of living death which mirrors precisely Gorchakov's situation) can only result in madness and it is to an audience of mad people that he delivers his wild oration and for which he immolates himself.
The way Tarkovsky answers one scene with another in opposite halves of the film is also shown by the use of St. Catherine's Pool. In the first half we see the Pool filled with steaming hot purifying water which is said to prolong life by relieving the sufferings of the ill. A group of old people stand in it and their conversation supplies some narrative information about Gorchakov being a Russian `poet' come to Italy to research a composer and Domenico being a resident madman who locked up his family in apocalyptic terror. While they talk, first Domenico and then Eugenia with Gorchakov walk around the Pool. Domenico tells Eugenia about a supposed conversation had between St. Catherine and God which on one level sounds like nonsense, but on another intrigues Gorchakov into wanting to talk to Domenico more - "He's not mad. He has faith," says Gorchakov. He senses this madman (in Russia mad people - Holy Fools - are said to be close to God) possesses the faith which may provide him with a way out of his own spiritual paralysis. Here St. Catherine's Pool is shown as a positive force of spiritual renewal as Gorchakov is given a lifeline. In the second half of the film this hope for `spiritual renewal' is taken away as we see the Pool drained of all water. We are left only with the rubbish of the modern world (rusty bicycles, old jars, keys, coins, etc) which is now exposed for everyone to see. As Domenico rants and raves in Rome, Gorchakov is left to `save the world' by reasserting spirituality through bearing the candle across the Pool. Will the waters come back? Will Domenico's sacrifice result in spiritual rebirth? Will both Domenico and Gorchakov's spirits live on and bear fruit both for themselves and the cultures they represent? These are all questions beyond the capacity of Tarkovsky (or any of us) to answer, but the hope at least, is clearly present.
The symmetrical narrative structure of Nostalghia hinges on a complex series of intensely poetic visions which I will term `Gorchakov's Reverie'. Taking place exactly halfway through the film, it is here that Gorchakov's crippling nostalgia is most clearly stated albeit in a highly poeticized manner. If the film's central pact struck between Gorchakov and Domenico to save the world via trial and immolation suggests the film to be part one of a diptych to be concluded by The Sacrifice (1986), the film is actually much closer in structure to Stalker. That film consists of a linear narrative broken up by a poetic series of images commentators have labeled `Stalker's Dream' which opaquely states Tarkovsky's main theme of the characters' search for faith and spiritual redemption. Similarly here `Gorchakov's Reverie' functions as an opaque statement of Gorchakov's spiritual collapse emanating from his remoteness from home and from his (and Russia's) unfulfilled yearning for the wholeness of existence. Various visions of Gorchakov's idealizations of his homeland have already interpolated the first half of the film (especially the fascinating long hotel room sequence in which, collapsed on his bed as the rain pours down outside, he imagines the dog from his Russian home enter the room, his wife and Eugenia kissing each other and his wife lying pregnant on a bed as it seems to float in the air), but Gorchakov's Reverie goes way beyond a mere dream to fracture the very continuity of the film. Four different `visions' are spliced into each other which are initially difficult to comprehend. Immediately following the scene where Gorchakov has to lie down to staunch his nose bleed having been hit by the departing Eugenia who reads a nostalgia-soaked letter from the composer Sosnovsky to a Russian friend as a farewell, the first vision takes us (in sepia) inside his Russian home. His wife leads the camera outside and the camera pans slowly across people (possibly his family) standing on a hillside (possibly waiting for his return). The abiding image is of the people, a line of electric poles extending into the distance and a dog and a horse all standing perfectly still in a typical Tarkovsky image of nostalgia for one's home. Then Tarkovsky cuts to a vision (in color) of an angel under the water. The camera pans up and we see the back of Gorchakov wading thigh-deep through water away from the camera into a flooded church as we hear the first of two Arseny Tarkovsky poems on the soundtrack recalling a childhood illness (possibly Tarkovsky's own which I post as a `comment' at the bottom of this review, redolent as the words are of the universal nostalgia for childhood, not just of the director's). By the pool in the flooded church Gorchakov has made a fire and in it he burns the book of Arseny Tarkovsky poems which has been translated into Italian and which earlier in the film he had asked Eugenia to burn saying, "Poetry can't be translated". Beside the fire is a half-empty bottle of vodka. Gorchakov is clearly drunk as he imagines a girl in front of him named `Angela' (a living angel). A pathetic figure standing drunk in the middle of the pool still wearing his long overcoat, Gorchakov is clearly a man in desperate crisis. As he wades towards Angela Tarkovsky cuts to the third vision (in sepia) of him walking down a dirty urban street. Rubbish everywhere he comes across a wardrobe. As he looks in the door's mirror Domenico stares back dressed in Gorchakov's clothes and speaking in Domenico's voice accompanied by the noise of the buzz saw we heard earlier outside Domenico's room when Gorchakov visited him. Gorchakov continues to walk and suddenly we realize he is walking through a ruined cathedral which has walls, but no roof. On the soundtrack we hear an imagined conversation between St. Catherine and God in which the Saint asks Him to send Gorchakov a sign of his presence, to which a single feather drops to the ground from on high. Tarkovsky then cuts back to the color sequence in the flooded church with Gorchakov lying asleep beside the fire in which the poetry book has now been almost completely destroyed. Gorchakov's Reverie finishes with a long slow zoom away from the dome of St. Peter's in Rome.
The whole sequence of events in Gorchakov's Reverie is deliberately vague and doesn't make sense intellectually. It's impossible to know if the flooded church is real or imagined, or whether the sepia visions are imagined from Gorchakov's bench in the hotel, or from the ground beside the pool. The whole sequence also covers a gigantic narrative ellipse of both time and place - at the start Gorchakov is in the hotel but at the end he is in Rome about to leave for the airport. Several days (or even weeks) must have passed. Emotionally however we can easily grasp Gorchakov's deep spiritual malaise coming from a deep-rooted nostalgia for his homeland. He's marooned away from his roots in a culture he can't comprehend. He makes a spiritual connection with Domenico sensing a possible way out, but he can't reconcile himself to something alien to his cultural roots. As per usual with Tarkovsky the most important thing about this central section (which actually defines the whole film) is that we in the audience empathize emotionally with Gorchakov's nostalgia, that we `feel it' rather than merely `understand it'. Connecting with the film on a subliminal level through "associative thinking which allow for an affective as well as a rational response" (Sculpting in Time), the ensuing two scenes of Domenico's immolation and especially of Gorchakov's ordeal with the candle in the Pool carry an extraordinary emotional charge making the final burst of Verdi and the film's closing image intensely moving as a consequence. Herein perhaps lies the reason for the film's uneven reputation. Many people clearly found (possibly still find) it difficult to empathize with Gorchakov's situation. For them the whole central sequence is merely confusing with the consequence that Domenico's sacrifice seems ridiculous and Gorchakov's 9 minute trek with the candle tedious to the extreme. Empathize with the central character however, and these sequences are among the most powerful in the whole of contemporary cinema.
Whether we can empathize with Gorchakov's situation or not, it's worth emphasizing that Nostalghia is the most beautiful film that Tarkovsky ever made. The extraordinary photography worked out with Guiseppe Lanci deploys the usual mixture of everything from color to b/w through sepia, but here the effect is tangible to an amazing degree. Shots are lengthy, many in excess of 4 minutes with slow zooms either in or out dominating the visual scheme. We feel we can reach out and touch the textures and surfaces of literally every scene. The usual barrage of Tarkovsky ticks and tropes are here in abundance - the horse in the visions of homeland and the barking of dogs that dominates many scenes, the presence of mirrors throughout (not only in the narrative structure as I have described, but also in the characters - Tarkovsky/Gorchakov, Tarkovsky/Sosnovsky, Gorchakov/Sosnovsky, Gorchakov/Domenico, Tarkovsky/Domenico, Eugenia/Gorchikov's wife, and in actual mirrors themselves into which characters look and see others as well as themselves). The four elements pervade the whole film as they do all Tarkovsky, but again (as with both Mirror and Stalker) water saturates everything and presents yet more reflective surfaces in which the world is splintered into thousands of glittering shiny multi-facetted diamonds. In Mirror water carried overwhelmingly positive associations connected with the Mother figure - cleansing, rebirth, rejuvenation, purification. In Stalker almost all liquids are connected with spiritual death and non-faith - pollution, stagnation, dangers, poison. In Nostalghia the meaning of water is much more ambiguous. In some ways it is positive - the water in St. Catherine's Pool which suggests physical health and the presence of faith, the rain outside Domenico's house which seems to inspire Gorchakov's acceptance of the pledge to carry the candle, the wine which he takes with the bread offered by Domenico as part of the Eucharist, the rain and the mist which accompanies virtually every `vision' of Mother Russia. On the other hand, it is also negative - the water in the Pool is drained away in the course of the film, the rain which accompanies his pledge to Domenico suggests a possible escape for him but it is an escape which necessitates his death, the positive wine is replaced by the destructive vodka as Gorchakov loses the plot completely adrift in the water of the flooded church, and the incessant rain which is always connected with warm and loving home is also the very symptom of the nostalgia which is crushing him. It is very easy to see the imagery Tarkovsky posits in the first half of the film (especially Domenico's strange warehouse home which leaks rain and appears to be a human abode in the process of reverting back to nature) as predominantly positive, but reflected as negative in the second half following Gorchakov's Reverie. The use of music supports this. The Verdi and the Russian folk song frame the film giving it a sense of perfect balance, but the use of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 `Ode to Joy' shows the shift in balance towards crisis. We first hear it in Domenico's home where it plays faultlessly as the man thinks through his upcoming demonstration in Rome, but in practice, the music player breaks down and the immolation becomes a comic farce which nobody except a group of mad people notice. In summation I'd say Nostalghia is certainly not an easy film and not everyone will like it. It was greeted with much puzzled disappointment at Cannes in 1983 and placed alongside L'Argent, Robert Bresson's diamond-sharp parable for our times with which it shared a prize, Nostalghia seemed rather diffuse. The main criticism was leveled at the film's pessimism and concern with a basically unsympathetic character. Why doesn't Gorchakov just get on a plane and go home thus sparing us this 2 hour wallow in self-pity? To think like this though would be to do Tarkovsky a great injustice. As I hope I have pointed out, the film is a work of great depth and artistic honesty well worth the effort it takes to initially get into it.
This is a review of a recording I made off-air some 20 years ago so I can't comment on the reputed low quality of Artificial Eye's release. I do know the film is reduced to an aspect ratio of 4:3 and there is a reported problem with the noisy soundtrack in the first 30 minutes. This isn't present in my recording though it is still 4:3. If you can find it somewhere I'd recommend the first AE release which also comes with Tempo di Viaggio and a documentary on Tarkovsky. All of this director's films demand great care in the way they are transferred and it seems the only way to get the most out of them is in the cinema on a good 35mm print. Let's hope Blu-ray technology can pick up and one day we can have these fabulous films as they should be seen.