Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Oleg Yankovskiy, Erland Josephson, Domiziana Giordano
My Rating: 9/10
In Short: Artistically powerful, thought-provoking examination of faith
A single flame. The fate of humanity, of religion, of faith and of hope rests on a single flame in Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, the thought-provoking Nostalghia. It is one of his most thematically powerful, allegorical movies; a masterpiece that needs to be seen by every foreign or arthouse cinema enthusiast.
The story, if there really is one, tells us of a Russian poet named Gorchakov travelling in Italy with his translator Eugenia. Though he came to the country to do research on another poet and see some of the sights of the glorious country, he seems to be unenthused and fairly bored with his travels most of the time. An early scene shows him choosing to stay in the car while Eugenia goes into a church and witnesses a miracle: a flock of birds emerging from a statue of the Virgin Mary. Their journey continues and they stop in at a hotel, where the poet learns of a strange man, Domenico, who kept his family locked up for seven years, to protect them from an apocalypse he believed was nigh. He was wrong, and now the townspeople argue about whether he is insane or just completely absorbed in his faith and dedication to God. Gorchakov is interested in the man, and goes to visit him, and in a wondrous extended sequence we discover how wondrous Domenico’s house is. The poet opens one door and sees a model of the Russian wilderness, that could very well be a portal to Russia itself, and an image on one of the wall’s of a child’s doll haunts the screen.
Much of the action is set within the protagonist’s mind. A fair portion of screen time is devoted to flashbacks of Gorchakov’s childhood, bizarre but beautiful sequences shot in black-and-white that involve very little dialogue and chiefly still and silent imagery. We learn from these that he is a curious man, not blatant in his religious beliefs, but still influenced by a sternly faithful upbringing. When he meets Domenico and travels through his house, he discovers that he has religious beliefs and and ideologies that reach far beyond his comprehensibility, and in the film’s shocking penultimate scene, we see Domenico standing atop a statue, preaching his beliefs, before committing a final destructive and disturbing act. Religion permeates all the characters in the film, but it is not so much what God preaches that they are interested in; it is what they believe to be right and true that they speak of and believe in so highly. Despite the devout religious themes of the film, I think that ultimately the characters are more selfish than they are caring, and their beliefs act similarly.
As we have come to be used to from Tarkovsky’s cinema, Nostalghia consists of scenes largely shot in one unbroken take. Sometimes the takes are of incredible length, but Tarkovsky wisely chooses to throw cuts to the wind and let important action unfold in real time. There are several scenes where this style becomes not only prevalent and noticeable, but vital to the film’s effect. There is one scene early on where Gorchakov reaches his hotel room and collapses on his bed. The camera shows this in one three minute shot. It very slowly eases in on his still, quiet, unmoving body, until we become trapped with him in this state of sickness and tired bewilderment. It is a very powerful shot. There are many like it.
The film builds up to and concludes with Gorchakov’s attempt to complete a task left to him by Domenico. Domenico believes that the only way to truly reach absolution and forgiveness for the sins of the world, a way to get closer to God and perhaps even understand the meaning of life is to complete this task. It sounds simple, but proves in the film’s final ten minutes (and shown in one very long, unbroken shot) to be incredibly difficult. The poet must carry a lighted candle across a long pool from one side to the other. This is made especially difficult by thick and moist mists and winds. I won’t tell you whether he completes the task, or what its consequences are, but despite what many have said of the scene, it is enthralling, makes you hold your breath, and creates incredible suspense. It is one of the greatest scenes of Tarkovsky’s career, one of the greatest shots of Tarkovsky’s career, and has helped to cement his reputation as a truly integral master of Russia’s involvement in the cinematic movement. Nostalghia is a great film, and an important one, even for those with little to no religious beliefs such as myself. If you believe in anything, anything at all, then Nostalghia is a film made for you.
“One drop plus another drop makes a bigger drop, not two.”