Unlike Abbas Kiarostami, a poet of contemporary cinema whose films stopped being about Iran when he stopped making films there, Andrei Tarkovsky, arguably Russia’s preeminent poet of the spirit, proved that while a Russian director could leave his homeland in the name of artistic freedom, he could still be imprisoned by the memories he took with him. In his book Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky wrote that he wanted Nostalghia, his first film after leaving Russia to escape censorship, to be “about the particular state of mind which assails Russians who are far from their native land.” Shot in Italy and written by Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra, the film explores this acute form of nostalgia through a spiritually wearied poet, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy), who’s traveled to Italy to research the life of a composer who studied in Bologna during the late 1700s before returning to Russia to hang himself. And so while Tarkovsky, at this point a wearied poet himself, literally had a whole new country’s worth of material to be inspired by and work from, he created instead a moody, deeply inward-facing film that, save for an anti-commercialism line about the overabundance of Italian shoes, hardly addresses the characteristics of its setting and instead, as Tarkovsky wrote, attempts to peer into the “universe within [man].”
Filmmaking, more than any other art, is best suited for capturing physical movement (action, violence, sports, sex), but it’s not particularly adept at capturing the movements of the soul. At his best, Tarkovsky was able to depict soul-searching better than perhaps any other director. In Nostalghia, Gorchakov’s feelings—his sense of nostalgia for Russia, his search for meaning in his life, his aversion to the modern world—aren’t only conveyed through Tarkovsky’s signature, typically black-and-white/sepia-toned and slowed-down memory sequences that feature women or a country home shrouded in fog, but through Gorchakov’s prominent inaction, which is established in the opening scene when he turns down an offer by his comely translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), to look at Piero della Francesca’s painting Madonna del Parto by saying “I want nothing more just for myself.” In fact, Gorchakov’s relationship with Eugenia, besides a way for Tarkovsky to ambiguously castigate the modern woman, it would seem, serves only to show how detached Gorchakov is from both socializing and his animal instincts, as he shows little, if any, interest in her as a person or a bare-breasted woman; she appears in one scene in which she delivers a bizarre monologue that would suggest a relationship between her and the off-camera Gorchakov and to which he has no response except to say that she’s “insane.” Indicative of his psychological state, the only person who does spark an interest in the torpid Gorchakov is Domenico (Erland Josephson), a local madman who reportedly locked his family up for seven years because he thought the apocalypse was coming.
Tarkovsky’s films remain so important today because of their ineffable spirituality, which has all but vanished in today’s technological world marked by information, science, and an increasing detachment from nature. Tarkovsky believed that for cinema to reach its full potential as an art form, it has to bypass the financial interests that shape it. His films certainly testify to that: Their slow pacing has often challenged audiences (especially throughout the first half of Solaris), causing some critics to accuse Tarkovsky of entirely disregarding the viewer when making his films. With Nostalghia, the filmmaker said he wasn’t interested in “development of the plot, in the chain of events,” and the film could, likewise, be accused of shunning the audience, but that would only be if you couldn’t tune into Tarkovsky’s expressive, transcendental wavelength.
If you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll appreciate the raindrops that can be heard and seen falling on multi-colored bottles as Gorchakov silently and ponderously strolls through a remarkably detailed set piece; the psychologically suggestive saws that can be heard buzzing through both his dreams and reality; and slow zooms that, combined with some lighting effects, unexpectedly, gradually reveal new details in a couple of atmospheric scenes. It’s within these “difficult” durational scenarios that Tarkovsky manages to elucidate something resembling spirituality. The penultimate scene in the film exemplifies this the most: Gorchakov, after learning from Domenic about the supposedly spiritually fulfilling task of walking a lit candle across a hot mineral pool, attempts it on his own—and in real time over nearly 10 minutes.
Perhaps Tarkovsky’s most opaque film, Nostalghia is nonetheless one of his most personal. Not only are Tarkovsky’s own feelings about leaving Russia and his family reflected in Gorchakov, but another side of him is reflected in Domenico. When Gorchakov visits Domenico in his home, a bombed-out looking space with a ceiling that lets rain in and the illogical equation “1 + 1 = 1” scrawled on the wall, Domenico takes a bottle of olive oil, pours two drops in his hand, and says, “One drop plus one drop makes a bigger drop, not two.” What Tarkovsky and Guerra, who has used a similar message in his script for Red Desert, are saying is that Gorchakov and Domenico are two sides of the same coin: The artist and the madman understand each other because they are part of the same person. Because of how abstract Nostalghia is, this is merely one of many allegorical aspects of a film that leaves itself open for interpretation.