Nostalgia ★★★★½

"I am fed up with all your beauties."

After his string of Russian-language masterpieces in the 60s and 70s, Andrei Tarkovsky found himself filming outside of his homeland for the rest of his career, and without the support of Soviet backing in Mosfilm. Taking his talents to Italy in Nostalghia, his penultimate film continues the dreamlike philosophical look of his most lauded features, and though it is not as long as the meditative work of Stalker, it requires just as much patience.

Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), a Russian poet and scholar, has traveled to Italy to research and rediscover the life and career of a composer from the 1700s named Pavel Sosnovsky. This man lived and wrote in Italy, and committed suicide when returning home to Russia. Accompanied by a translator named Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), a convent in the Tuscan countryside beckons them; only Eugenia enters, and Andrei pauses despite the interior of this building featuring masterful frescoes by Piero della Francesca. His partner is perplexed at this refusal, as the two drove many miles to this exact location noted for its artwork of the Virgin Mary; Eugenia also is increasingly attracted to Andrei, though the two seem stuck together with little movement.

Feeling alienated, Andrei encounters Domenico (Erland Josephson), a mad prophet of sorts tolerated by the locals, and this perchance meeting sparks a connection, as the two men feel as kindred spirits. Domenico's particular quirk befuddles Andrei but also transfixes him: the strange Italian claims he wishes to walk across the town's mineral bath with a lit candle, and with this act he will "save the world." Amidst brief scenes of his past and childhood, Andrei learns of the customs of this Tuscan village, and of a darker past of Domenico.

I don't believe anyone who says they completely understand the plot nor the themes of any Tarkovsky film. That's perfectly fine not to, and you're probably a pretentious asshole if you claim to. Just take it all in. Like Thomas said of the filmmaker, "He doesn't want you to have a good time, he wants you to contemplate on humanity's great existential questions."

And in Nostalghia, contemplate you will. Or, if you don't, I'm not sure what you're doing watching this director. There's a transcendental quality to his films, ones that blend dream and reality, ones that traverse from the past to the present (often in nonlinear fashion), ones that remain with you by slowly drawing you in even with a first act that you might have to accept is enigmatic and slow. There is always a payoff to a Tarkovsky feature, but he makes you wait an agonizingly long time for it. John Oursler writes about what he calls the "entrancing rhythm and aestheticism" of the film, seen in a breathtakingly beautiful opening shot of a countryside view which "segues from living document to still photograph." He continues:

This nearly imperceptible shift can be attributed to Tarkovsky’s signature protracted pacing, and what begins the film immediately establishes the thought template that continues throughout; to better engage with the present we need to understand and let go of the past. The point at which our living memory no longer arrests our development enables nostalgia….Nostalghia offers a similarly strange power in that its takeaways are not immediately recognizable, but the value of experiencing them feels unquestionably permanent.

Tarkovsky himself said, of leaving the Soviet Union to make movies with no censorship, in his book Sculpting in Time, that this work was "about the particular state of mind which assails Russians who are far from their native land." You can take the man out of Russia, but you can't take the Russia out of the man. Or perhaps, in Soviet Russia, film makes you! And here in this piece, the main character searching for that nostalgia and purpose isn't with his prior techniques of longing for home or family, but with an apathetic man adrift and detached from what's in front of him. (At one point, that's a beautiful barely clothed woman in Eugenia.)

Some images and scenes -- long tracking shots and slow close-up -- recall the most captivating ones of Tarkovsky's stirring mid-70s film Mirror. (That's one of those movies I didn't write a review for, and need to see again despite remaining permanently etched in my brain.) A few of the pans and sweeping camera movements by Giuseppe Lanci are just stupidly gorgeous. Wait until the finale to be gobsmacked; he's been showing you the element of water and its fluidity and impermanence all the while, so the conflagration that comes is stunning.

This is indeed an abstract and difficult film, but at the same time it feels intimately personal to Tarkovsky. He surely was searching for something, having left his home himself. It's not clear if he found it, and I'm not clear if some of the most opaque moments aren't just a little too illogical. Little matter, as I know overall it's a work of true artistry.

Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to Andrei Tarkovsky ranked.

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