A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, May 26, 2017

Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)

Oleg Yankovskiy in Nostalghia
For the last film of his life, The Sacrifice (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky, self-exiled from the Soviet Union, would venture into Sweden with the help of Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and he made his first film outside of Russia in Italy with the help of co-screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who had written screenplays for Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Just as Bergman is a spiritual presence in The Sacrifice, so are Antonioni and Fellini in Nostalghia. But mostly it's Tarkovsky's deracination that shows in both films, especially in Nostalghia, in which he imports a damp Russian climate into the Mediterranean atmosphere of Italy. I find Nostalghia more accessible or more satisfying -- if such words could ever be adequate to one's experience of Tarkovsky -- than The Sacrifice because Tarkovsky doesn't take on anything so enormous as nuclear holocaust in Nostalghia. In its bare essence, Nostalghia is the story of a Russian poet, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy), in Italy to write the biography of an 18th-century Russian composer, who finds himself sinking deeper into depression until he encounters a madman named Domenico (Erland Josephson) who allows Andrei a moment of transcendence. Nostalghia is a film about fire and water. Domenico, who lives in a leaky ruin into which the rain continually drips, believes that he can save the world if he carries a lighted candle through the waters of the spa at Bagno Vignoni. The authorities, however, continually prevent him from even attempting the task. Eventually, Domenico becomes a mad prophet, preaching to a scattered audience of followers before he douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire. Andrei then sets out to complete Domenico's task, walking across the pool -- which has, however, been drained for a periodic cleaning -- with the candle and then collapsing. Tarkovsky films this scene in a single long take, during which the wind blows out Andrei's candle twice, forcing him to restart the task, before he finally accomplishes it. This is film as poetry, the product of a singular, remarkable sensibility, and it probably should be judged more by the standards we apply to poetry than by those we apply to narrative film. Tarkovsky was one of the last romantics, still willing to ascribe virtue to enthusiasm, to find wisdom in madness, to rail against our alienation from nature as profoundly as Wordsworth or Shelley or Blake ever did.