To Seek and Be Called: Nostalghia (1983)

Nostalghia (1983) is often considered along with Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo / Ива́ново де́тство 1962) to be a minor Tarkovsky, the latter due to its relative conventionality, the former because of how far it goes in the other direction. Written by Andrei Tarkovsky with famous Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra, this film is a mood piece in the strictest sense of the term, in that its core theme is the feeling of “nostalghia,” or Russian emigrant longing for the fatherland, and in the fact that every cinematic element is either sacrificed for this theme or indentured into its service. What results is a work of devastating beauty just ripe for the GIFing.

Here’s the entirety of the plot; I won’t concentrate on it in this piece, so I direct you to an unsurpassed theological close reading by Ian Maxton. Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) is in Tuscany researching a Russian composer who spent some formative time there. Accompanying him is Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), his interpreter (though he knows more than a little Italian), guide (though he seems to do fine when alone), and ostensible romantic companion (though he shows little interest in her). They meet Domenico (Erland Josephson, completely transformed from his Bergman days), a local madman who had locked his family up for seven years in anticipation of the Apocalypse. Andrei, who thinks he understands Domenico, goes to have a chat; Eugenia, who can’t understand Andrei let alone Domenico, feels scorned and leaves. Then, supposedly a few days later, Domenico gives a millenarian speech atop a public monument before immolating himself, while Andrei returns from Rome to Tuscany to complete a task assigned him by Domenico: Carry a lit candle from one end of a now-empty mineral bath pool to the other without letting it go out. He finally succeeds with his dying breath.

Famously, the candle sequence comprises three attempts in one breath-stopping take nearly ten minutes long, unequivocally marking it as an act of faith. Shooting it as a parallel tracking shot gives it a sense of mission, longing, journey, and even pilgrimage. The film is filled with similar parallel tracking shots of the two spiritual men, also long takes, imbuing the film with a sense of seeking; however, expectations of finding anything are often uncannily subverted by having actors who are stationary in-frame quickly run around the camera once it’s left them to show up later in the same tracking shot, still apparently stationary. You seek a spiritual home but only find yourself.

I began by saying the film is about Russian nostalghia, yet here I am, talking about faith—in fact, the two are linked. To visit the churches and holy sites of the film, Andrei has necessarily left Russia, and in the frequent scenes of longing for home that crop up throughout the film (shot by Giuseppe Lanci in black and white, as opposed to the bleached and subdued color of the reality sequences), we sometimes see a family member—wife? daughter?—with angelic wings. And another name for the Russian Orthodox Church is the Moscow Patriarchate, bespeaking the close relationship between church and nation. We in secular countries may think of such a close relationship as delimiting the universality of the religion, but it also elevates the nation (if not the state) to a height that exceeds the mere product of a social contract. It’s this elevated idea of Russia that is the reference of nostalghia and Nostalghia.

Faith is evoked by more than just long tracking shots. The film also has a number of shots of Andrei or Domenico turning 180 degrees to face the camera, as if, mid-search, they hear something calling them.

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But pointedly, the only time Andrei looks up to the heavens is when he’s trying to staunch a nosebleed. What’s sought can’t be found on a higher plane, as Domenico has proven after seven years’ hard work.

As one would expect from a Tarkovsky film, water is everywhere in Nostalghia as the symbol of life, mystery, and spiritual renewal—and a major source of the film’s mood. Rain pouring down the side of Andrei’s hotel fills the room with nostalghia, and nostalghia is what leads him to stumble around a flooded church, drunk on poetry, tobacco, and wine.

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In truth, almost every shot and scene of the film that doesn’t include Eugenia, avatar of the worldly, is gracefully composed and beautifully captured. Andrei seeks a salve for his longing by completing a task set for him by a man of spirituality, but because the terms of the film don’t allow such a spiritual satisfaction in the earthly realm, his success means he can exist no more—he dies. We viewers, on the other hand, know that unmet spiritual longings can result in another kind of salve, offering not resolution but mere alleviation. I speak, of course, of art—cinematic or otherwise.

Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.

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