Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky 1983) – BlogalongaRusskie #6
Just one more Tarkovsky film left in my mission to watch every one of the Russian master’s movies month-by-month. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the task is getting harder to achieve.
(Andrei Tarkovsky, Rus, 1983)
Latecomers, beware – don’t start Tarkovsky here. But if you’re already a convert to his cause, this crosses the border from insufferable to transcendental
You can get to know a lot about a director if you watch all of their films in sequence. So when, early in Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film made outside Russia), the hero (a writer whose first name happens to be Andrei) bemoans the existence of borders, and claims that the fact the world shares no common language or culture makes it impossible to achieve any true understanding, it might just turn out to be significant.
See, Tarkovsky’s cinema has always been one of borders, and the idea that there’s more to life than the usual confines. The eponymous hero of Andrei Rublev finds the grace and beauty in art that escapes him in the hellish turmoil of medieval Russia. In Solaris, a trip to space resurrects a man’s dead wife. In Stalker, men risk all for the promise of a room where their dreams will be made flesh. And Mirror, as the title suggests, is a case of reality jumping through the looking glass.
But in Nostalghia, Tarkovsky piles on the dualism in both subject and imagery, dividing to conquer – pitting man against woman, colliding past and present, merging faith and madness, swimming between dreams and reality. But mostly it’s about the border between Tarkovsky and his audience. Over the past half a year of BlogalongaRusskie, I’ve found that a director commonly regarded as slow and pretentious is actually quite engaging and accessible… when he wants to be. But here (as in Mirror) Tarkovsky has shrugged off any concession to entertainment and is on a one-man-mission to be as intimidating and austere as his reputation.
If you were trying to spoof the clichés of the art-house movie, Nostalghia would be a great place to come for inspiration. Memories are shot in black-and-white; characters talk at each other rather than listening to what the other is saying; a man lives in a symbolically waterlogged house where he’s set a pathetic bunch of plastic bottles to stem the tide. It’s the kind of film where the extras are asked to keep their expression moody and aloof even when a man on fire is running past them.
This isn’t, it’s fair to say, the ideal starting point for Tarkovsky – but it all comes back to those first principles of auteur cinema, and the notion that you’ll get more out of Nostalghia if you’ve invested the time in getting to know the director. Actually, that’s implicit in the title, isn’t it? The nostalgia is as much ours as it is Andrei the writer’s, pining for the Russian steppes. Tarkovsky might have made this a new start in his career (especially after the Soviet authorities pulled the plug on what was originally a co-production with Italy) but he remains in lock-step with his Russian mindset, and that extraordinary, unmistakable style.
Tarkovsky finds locations in Italy that he might have used in Stalker – flooded, decaying, symbols of entropy – and he somehow shoots Italian light to resemble the cold light of home. In technique, this appears to be a film that breaches every border, with Tarkovsky’s magisterial use of camerawork and his classical jukebox of music cues achieving a beauty and power than transcends such considerations as ‘where was it shot?’ or ‘what the hell is going on?’. Whatever the language, Tarkovsky’s visuals remain consistently enthralling, and determined to change our own viewpoint. In one extraordinary tracking shot, a simple walk alongside a spring bath shifts from sepulchral gloom into an epiphany of light. And the closing shot offers one of the most awe-inspiring, surreal shifts in perspective in cinema.