Nostalghia is further evidence that Andrei Tarkovsky might not be a filmmaker, but a sorcerer.
The Russian master summons nature’s elements from the very first frame, with the haunting image of a hooded woman, a large dog and some children walking down a foggy hill toward a misty lake. It isn’t until later that we learn this is one of the black-and-white visions (memories? dreams?) had by the film’s main character, a Russian poet named Andrei (Oleg Yankovskiy). After the opening credits roll and the movie gives way to a verdant color scheme, we find Andrei in Italy with a translator (Domiziana Giordano), researching a famous spa town where a Russian composer visited in the 1700s. There he meets a religious fanatic (Erland Josephson, who would later star in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice) who challenges his assumptions about truth, reality and the nature of belief.
It would take many viewings to get a more specific handle on Tarkovsky’s thematic aims (there’s also something about motherhood going on), yet I was more than content to simply swim in the movie’s mysteries and possibilities. A seemingly mundane scene of Andrei resting in his hotel room becomes a wealth of clues and composition, as Tarkovsky creates entrancing drama out of a single take. He and cinematographer Giuseppe Lanci subtly adjust the lighting to emphasize different depths of the mise en scene, directing our attention from the window, say, to Andrei disappearing in darkness on the bed. At one point the rain outside oddly infiltrates the room, forming a puddle on the floor. Then, without warning, the same dog from the opening shot emerges from the bathroom and lies down next to the bed. Without a single cut, reality, dreams, visions and memories have all merged.
Without a single cut, reality, dreams, visions and memories have all merged.
Water is often the connecting element in Tarkovsky’s films. It’s no coincidence that the town Andrei visits is home to a natural spa that is believed to have healing powers (its mist drifts across the grounds like an insinuating spell). Visiting the fanatic’s dilapidated home during a rainstorm, Andrei sidesteps all sorts of puddles; at one point we see that a plastic sheet is holding back gallons of rainwater over the man’s bed. And, as in The Sacrifice, occasionally we get insert shots of pools of stagnant water, often at moments of distress.
As Andrei, Yankovskiy turns in a remarkably compelling performance, especially considering intellectual navel-gazing is his main course of action. Yet Yankovskiy never overplays Andrei’s anguish; instead he lets it seep from his hollow cheeks and searching eyes. And he holds up like a champ in Tarkovsky’s signature long takes, including one in which Andrei attempts to carry a candle across an emptied pool in a desperate religious gesture, only to have to start over each time the flame blows out.
Giordano, as Eugenia the interpreter, is a refreshing foil, and I’m thankful Tarkovsky gives her an early scene of her own, in which she struggles to pray at a cathedral. (“You should at least kneel,” the sacristan suggests.) Eventually she becomes understandably exhausted by Andrei’s dithering, especially over whether or not to have an affair with her.
From such earthy concerns, Tarkovsky summons a uniquely mystical experience, one akin in complexity and aim to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. There is an astonishing final shot in Nostalghia that combines, from what I can tell, rear projection, miniature models and location footage shot at Tuscany’s eerily roofless San Galgano Abbey. It’s at this point that Nostalghia has achieved what so few films even attempt: it transports us to a place that no longer feels temporal, but spiritual.