Curzon Artificial Eye releases the penultimate film from Andrei Tarkovsky’s body of work in Nostalgia and its something of an enigma. Post-Stalker, Tarkovsky planned to make a film called The First Day which concerned itself with atheism in the Soviet Union, long story short, he had a further confrontation with Goskino (USSR committee for cinematography) to the extent where the half-finished film was scrapped and the director inflicted a self-imposed exile from his native Russia upon himself. 1983’s Nostalgia is the outcome of those emotions swirling inside the filmmaker. In this Italian set film, Oleg Yankovskiy stars as Andrei Gorchakov who travels the Italian countryside researching the life of an 18th-century poet. Sparsely plotted at the best of times, here Tarkovsky takes one step further away from narrative concerns to become nigh on plotless.
Focused primarily around three or four locales, Gorchakov with his translator Eugenia (Domziana Giordano) wander the lands before happening upon an eccentric man named Domenico (Erland Josephson), who is famous in his village for trying to cross through the waters of a mineral pool with a lit candle. Domenico claims that when finally achieves it, he will save the world. In this friendship little is said and even less done. Presentation and the quirks of this relationship lead Nostalgia away from traditional cinema and into the embrace of the film poem. For many Tarkovsky is considered one of the form’s greatest poets, thus such a transition is a natural one. His poetry is one that distilled basic truths of the human experience into one of the best defined photographic identities of any filmmaker. Tarkovsky commands such a rarefied position in the film community because of this.
The three films that preceded Nostalgia in Stalker, Mirror and Solaris are stacked with leagues of substance beneath the surface that can be a little on the intimidating side given their remarkable density. Like David Lynch’s most acclaimed works Mulholland Drive, Tarkovsky is a filmmaker whose work rewards multiple rewatches in order to unpack and interpret. While the same is true for this earlier films too, they enjoyed a broader cinematic dialogue allowing for more inclusive experiences. Alas, Nostalgia is a world away from this and the usual balance between storytelling and subtext has been asymmetrically swung towards connotation.
Homesickness and the futility of trying to catch lightning in a bottle, a fitting analogy for the creative process exaggerated 100 fold when considering the conflict he endured with his home state. Perhaps the magnitudes are dissimilar, but these are feelings with a degree of generality. The communication of such thoughts is more abstract than those generalities may suggest. Dotted throughout are dream sequences in which Gorchakov wanders the streets of an implied home, with its empty streets and often wordless interactions with his wife and child. Sequences that have more than a passing resemblance to the oddities found in a David Lynch film. And there is more, the lion’s share of the film takes place in the building that Domenico called home and as impressive as it is to see this isolated building become more and more decrepit, the particularities of such notions can be a little muddy on the first viewing.
In the final half hour, Tarkovsky returns from the alienation and dream logic of the countryside and into the city where he uses Domenico to craft a stylized display perched atop a giant statue of a horse to decry modern society. A scene that he uses to depict an experience analogous to that which the director experienced in Russia. Alienation is communicated explicitly in Nostalgia, both thematically and as a response to the films otherness. The final 30 has the most to connect to, with both Domenico atop a horse and Gorchakov transporting a lit candle across a mineral pool in lieu of his new friend.
Accessibility is an ambiguous touchstone for any creative project, nonetheless, the way in which Tarkovsky conducted his films meant that his films were as close as one could get given their heft. Sad it is then that the qualities that saw the Russian grand master rise to the top of World Cinema toppled leaving only a no less impressive visual thesis. As a conceptual, visual piece Nostalgia has more in common with that birthed 12 years a Slave director Steve McQueen, the world of video art – a form that is screened in art galleries. That is the underlying problem, for many the glacial pacing and lack of any coherent narrative will fail to keep the boredom at bay. Tarkovsky idiosyncratic photographic flavour is present and correct but the question of what it all means is simply not enough to see Nostalgia reach the zenith of Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Ivan’s Childhood.
There is a very clear line dividing the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, between that which can be relished and that which has to be interpreted. Naturally, interpretation can be misunderstood, overlooked or even fall on deaf ears. There is one consistent that will blur the lines in Nostalgia in the aforementioned cinematographic nous common through all of the Russian auteur work. The slow pan as his camera moves through the thick fog of the mineral pool, with odd shapes and disembodied voices forming a waking dreamscape unlike no other. Always one to pore absolute detail into all aspects of his work, there’s a quasi-German Expressionism in the dream scenes and his valuing of production design sees the focal home of Domenico flooded as part of a process that sees the slow cultivation of a hyper-real cast off of Stalker’s post-apocalypse.
Reading this review it’ll be self-evident whether Nostalgia is for you; surrealism is one of the single most divisive traits in all cinema and this metaphysical dreamscape drenched in symbolism couldn’t be more characteristic. Curzon Artificial Eye has restored the film beautifully, keeping all the murk and mist beautifully balanced and supported by one of the least conventional directors commentaries’ with Psychoanalyst Mary Wild. These Blu-ray reissues have reintroduced Andrei Tarkovsky to a whole new generation to pore over, unfortunately, this is one best served to those completists given its deeply metaphysical and alienating trickery.
Blu-ray special features:
- Interview with co-writer Tonino Guerra
- Interview with Marina Tarkovsky
- Andrei Tarkovsky’s Metaphysical Dream Zone: Selected scene commentary by Psychoanalyst Mary Wild
- 40-page booklet