August 18, 2014 - 3:09pm
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes by UW Madison student Austin Wellens were distributed at our screenings of Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia in January and August of this year.

Tarkovsky’s stated purpose in creating Nostalghia was “to make a film about Russian nostalgia – about that state of mind peculiar to our nation which affects Russians who are far from their native land,” and the window he gives us to peer through at this unique affliction is Andrei, the displaced Russian writer at the center of the film. Surrounded by postcard-worthy Italian scenery, he is alternatingly impassive and overwhelmed; in either case, his disconnection from everything around him is palpable, as he finds more of himself in in the centuries-dead Russian serf composer he’s researching than he can in the woman guiding him on his tour, or anything in the grandeur of the cathedrals he drifts through.

Tarkovsky’s camera glides and hovers through Andrei’s settings in long, gorgeous takes, the never ending Italian hallways and arches interrupted only by the gold and grain of Russian memories, the only instances which feel tangible, textile, and real. An all-encompassing atmosphere that, moment by moment, presses down onto the central character amplifies the weight of every deliberate motion. The air hangs heavy, broken by light and saturated with moist and chill. Every breath is oppressive. Water flows and falls at seemingly all times, keeping Andrei pinned with the cold and damp and allowing not a second’s respite from the waves of ancient and Italian architecture. Even his language has been taken from him. His Italian is stiff, uncomfortable and inexpressive; Russian poetry loses its song in a foreign tongue. When he does find a brief moment to shelter in some flooded ruins, waste himself on vodka and let his native speech flow, he is transformed. Yankovsky’s performance lights up, growing a kinetic dimension that dispels the gloom of Andrei’s separation for a brief period. And yet the world remains just outside, like a nightmare to be returned to after being startled awake.

Tarkovsky’s ability to stretch a second far beyond itself and to create space is total, and it crafts a film heavy with its character’s psyche and suffering through and beyond its final frame. Yet while Andrei is wholly consumed by this distance, there is some shimmering hope seen beyond and above through the eyes of Domenico the madman and Eugenia.

In Domenico, Andrei finds the only thing that can fascinate him. His life mangled by fascism, considered a lunatic by the society that surrounds him, he’s a man as removed from the moment as the Russian, but his concerns run far beyond “getting home,” back to where he was. He sees all around him the disconnected nature and distress of modern society, the overwhelming bustle and emptiness that Andrei finds in the postcard beauty of Italian chapels. While it is easy to view Andrei as a sort of authorial avatar for Tarkovsky, it is through Domenico that the director’s voice can be most directly heard. His demonstration of two drops of water making not two drops but one larger drop, of one plus one being one, pleads for wholeness on a universal scale, an appeal to retie the bonds holding present to past to future and restore humanity to a cold and distant society. Domenico shouts his pleas from statues, through the streets of Rome, gives all of himself in a desperate appeal to an impassive and unmoving audience. He cries for an apocalypse taking place before his eyes, incites people to revolt, to reconnect, and to reach for something deeper and higher than simple nationality or place.

This wholeness that Tarkovsky searches for is found rooted in women, in femininity, in Eugenia, and in sacred motherhood. Nostalghia is dedicated to his mother, the woman to whom he would compare all others in his life, and in her, or at least in the idea of her, the director finds the promise of completion that is needed to rescue humanity from itself. Sexuality is completely removed from the equation; the closest it comes is base and furious and, frankly, below the purpose of the film. Rather, Tarkovsky conflates women and femininity with the holy and the divine, with the source of our being that we’ve grown so far from. When Andrei dreams of home, it is of his wife, his mother and his sisters. In Italy, it’s just a man and his dog. Do not believe for a moment it is coincidental that the country he pines for is known as the Motherland. 

At the end of the film, it is Eugenia, not Domenico or Andrei, who speaks with god about the possibility of being saved. Tarkovsky extrapolates from motherhood, to nationhood, to the broadest sense of belonging imaginable. In this he creates a film that is deeply personal, unique and specific, but also operates on the largest and most universal level that art is capable of. And ultimately, he concludes with the greatest promise imaginable; that salvation is already here. We are surrounded by our redemption, even if we cannot see it.

The production of Nostalghia, which saw Tarkovsky leave the Soviet Union to work for only the second time in his life, came at a huge cost. In his notes following its completion, he confessed to feeling the stress of working so far from home, and in an unfamiliar language, writing “when I first saw all the material shot for the film I was startled to find it was a spectacle of unrelieved gloom…irrespective of my own specific theoretical intentions, the camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming.” The tragic reflections of life and art don’t end there, though, as his Russian support was withdrawn halfway through filming, forcing him to draw on Italian resources to finish the picture and exiling him from his home. He would never again return to Russia. As he wrote, “How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” - Austin Wellens