Nostalgia

Nostalgia

This piece was originally published on Simulacro Mag.

Change is an unavoidable part of life – regardless of what shape it comes in. I believe recognizing this truth has made me a reasonably resilient person. Certainly, my personality also plays a significant role in this respect, but so do the circumstances I have found myself in – possibly to an even greater extent. Having lived in several different cities growing up – and more recently, having crossed the Atlantic and moved to a country I had never been to before – meant that I had to learn, even if subconsciously, to adapt to the world around me to survive. To me, there is beauty in the ability to let things go.

Conversely, I have also come to recognize that there is a strange nobility to being deeply rooted in a particular time and place – a condition we could call nostalgia. No one has managed to capture it with as much poetry and grace as Andrei Tarkovsky. In his book Sculpting in Time, the poet of the spirit describes nostalgia as an “inexorable, insidious awareness of your own dependence on your past, like an illness that grows ever harder to bear.” Tarkovsky is no stranger to the profound sense of bereavement derived from being away from home – a feeling transmuted in his penultimate film, fittingly named Nostalghia (1983). Despite being shot in Italy, the film – the filmmaker’s first after leaving his homeland in pursuit of artistic freedom – is quintessentially Russian:

I wanted to make a film about Russian nostalgia—about the particular state of mind which assails Russians who are far from their native land. I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, their past, their culture, their native places, their families and friends; an attachment which they carry with them all their lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.

Nostalghia explores the spiritual crisis of Andrei Gorchakov, a Russian poet who comes to Italy to research the life of eighteenth-century compatriot serf composer Pavel Sosnovsky. Sosnovsky had been sent by his proprietor, who had noted his musical talent, to study composition at the Academy of Bologna. He went on to live in Italy for the next nine years, achieving great acclaim. Despite this, and undoubtedly driven by his inescapable yearning for home, he decided to return to slavery in Russia, only to hang himself shortly upon his return. Sosnovsky’s story paraphrases Gorchakov’s state of mind – he, too, is an outsider in a foreign land, plagued by a paralyzing nostalgia. Past and present gradually become one, as the tormented poet is assailed by the sounds and smells from home, by images of familiar places and the faces of those dear to him.

It is explicit from the whole of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre that his interest is not in the development of the story, but rather in his character’s inner worlds: “I am interested in man, for he contains the universe within himself; and in order to find expression to the idea, for the meaning of human life, there is no need to spread behind it, as it were, a canvas crowded with happenings.” Indeed, it is precisely through Gorchakov’s prominent inaction that we can understand the gravity of his alienation not only from the world but also from himself. This is made clear, in part, by his interactions with Eugenia, the interpreter who accompanies him on his trip. The tormented poet remains distant and introspective despite the surfacing attraction between him and the sensual, statuesque woman. There is a palpable tension that boils beneath their interactions, which mimic a tango, as Gorchakov rejects Eugenia’s advances as promptly as he invited them. The fact that he carries the keys to his home in the pocket of his overcoat and constantly fiddles with them is another indication of his homesickness.

While visiting the pools of St. Catherine in Bagno Vignoni, Gorchakov is intrigued by the presence of Domenico, a former mathematician who, waiting for the Armageddon, imprisoned his family in a house for seven years. Tormented by his inability to save them from the evils of the world, the eccentric man has drifted toward a spiraling descent into madness. That this fateful encounter has the hot springs of Bagno Vignoni as a background is not by mere chance: historically, they were constructed to alleviate the suffering of the ill. Therefore, this moment is a turning point in Gorchakov’s journey, which has transformed into a personal pilgrimage to heal the sickness within his soul.

In a moving letter to his friend Pyotr Nikolayevich, written two years after he arrived in Italy, Pavel Sosnovsky remarked: “I could try to ensure that I never return to Russia, but the very thought is like death. It surely cannot be that for as long as I live I shall never again see the land where I was born: the birches and the sky of my childhood.” This sentiment was shared by Gorchakov and, consequently, the own Tarkovsky – after all, “How would the painter or the poet express anything other than his encounter with the world?” Nostalghia achieves its emotional intensity because it is a reflection of the director’s inner state.

In the film’s final movement, Domenico takes it upon himself to act on all that is wrong with the world. “We must go back to where we were, to the point where we took the wrong turn. (…) What kind of world is this, if a mad man tells you must be ashamed of yourselves!” is his last cry of warning before sacrificing himself for Humanity. Deeply affected by Domenico’s integrity, Gorchakov tries himself to do something about the suffering of the world – and his own. However, he has been tortured to a point where he is unable to overcome his spiritual crisis and loss of identity.

Nostalghia is proof that a man can leave his homeland but still be imprisoned by the shackles of the past. It is a self-reflexive journey into the depths of the crumbling identity of a nation. It is about the loss of and mourning for an absent home. But it is, above all, a poignant reflection of humanity’s spiritual homelessness.

Earlier in the film, an exasperated Eugenia censures Gorchakov’s passiveness – “You all seem to want freedom. You talk about freedom, but when you get it, you don’t know what to do with it, or what it is.” Our restless quest for spiritual freedom has rendered us into travelers without a destination – and at what cost? Unless we make a genuine effort to stop and answer that question, we will keep moving farther away from home. And, as we do it, our sense of nostalgia will only grow.

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