Zack Mosley’s review published on Letterboxd:
In my review of STALKER, I described the two remaining films in my Tarkovsky retrospective as "all downhill from here", implying that NOSTALGHIA and THE SACRIFICE would be relatively easy to write about after the challenges of ANDREI RUBLEV, SOLARIS, MIRROR, and STALKER. I did not have strong recollections of NOSTALGHIA, otherwise I would not have made such a foolhardy statement. NOSTALGHIA is just as oblique, just as enigmatic, as anything the famously inscrutable Russian director has offered in his preceding work.
I must admit that I do not profess rhapsodic love for NOSTALGHIA, and that its dramatic weight doesn't quite flatten me like Tarkovsky's other films. It is still as formally innovative as anything else in his resume, and I still respect and admire it on a great level. But it seems to be missing some key component in its construction, some indefinable purity of conceptual principle that, in Tarkovsky's other works, provides the scaffolding to support his artistic philosophy. Upon the film’s release, many critics complained that NOSTALGHIA is boring, and that not much happens. The latter charge is a fair critique; there isn't much dramatic conflict present in the narrative. Aside from some bickering between the two romantically inert leads, and a fiery climax, the film is mostly moody, pensive introspection. But boredom is relative, and I don't really think that the issue here is Tarkvosky's omnipresent slow pacing. Rather, I think we need to consult the history of the film's production, and how it ties into the narrative, to determine why NOSTALGHIA feels like it's a film pitched from the director's left hand.
In 1979, fresh off the Ecumenical Jury Prize for STALKER at Cannes, Tarkovsky began work on a film about Peter the Great called THE FIRST DAY. A wily adversary of Soviet censorship, Tarkovsky submitted an incomplete script to Mosfilm (the official state film production arm of the USSR), omitting several scenes that ran counter to official Soviet policy (mostly making an argument against state-mandated atheism, according to sources familiar with the unfinished work.) Mosfilm ordered the project halted mid-way through filming when they caught wind of THE FIRST DAY's heretical approach. Incensed by the encroachment on his artistic license, Tarkovsky ordered the footage destroyed, and moved to Italy to begin work on what would become NOSTALGHIA. Still counting on support from Mosfilm, he was forced to remove some scenes set in Russia when his state-backing was unceremoniously withdrawn. After NOSTALGHIA was completed, Mosfilm apparently interfered with the jury process in Cannes, preventing NOSTALGHIA from contending for the Palme D'or. At this point, Tarkovsky made the decision not to return to Russia, fearing that he would not be able to continue making films on his own terms if he did.
This acrimony was compounded by a personal tragedy—the death of longtime collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn, who Tarkovsky had in mind for the lead role in NOSTALGHIA as the poet Andrei Gorchakov. Tarkovsky, albeit biased, considered Solonitsyn the foremost actor in the world: "Anatoliy Solonitsyn was a born film actor, highly strung and suggestible. It was so easy to infect him with emotions, to achieve the right mood."* Tarkovsky later contracted the same type of lung cancer that killed Solonitsyn, likely from exposure to toxic chemicals on the set of STALKER.
"While I was still making NOSTALGHIA I could not escape the feeling that the film was influencing my life. In the NOSTALGHIA scenario, Gorchakov had only come to Italy for a short time, but he fell ill and died. In other words, he failed to return to Russia not of his own volition, but by a dictate of fate. Nor did I imagine that after finishing NOSTALGHIA I would remain in Italy; like Gorchakov, I am subject to a Higher Will. Another sad fact came to underline these thoughts: the death of Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who had played the lead in all my previous films and who, I assumed, would have the parts of Gorchakov in NOSTALGHIA and of Alexander in THE SACRIFICE. He died of the illness of which Alexander was cured, and which a year later was to afflict me... it seems symholic that the actor's death as it were cut my life in two: the first part in Russia, and the rest—all that has happened and will happen since I left Russia."*
So it is understandable that NOSTALGHIA sees Tarkovsky performing in a melancholy minor key, mourning the loss of a very close friend, and dislocated from the homeland of his deep spiritual reserves. NOSTALGHIA, then, is practically autobiographical in the context of its production background. The plot concerns a poet, Andrei Gorchakov, who has come to Italy to trace the footsteps of the Russian serf composer Beryózovsky. Sent by his landowner from Russia to Italy to study music, Beryózovsky prospered abroad. But perhaps driven by homesickness, he inevitably returned to Russia and serfdom, where he promptly chose to hang himself. Gorchakov is accompanied by the beautiful and emphatically Italian translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), who finds his emotional remoteness infuriating. Amidst his travels he meets a kind of holy fool named Domenico (Bergman stalwart Erland Josephson), a man dismissed by Eugenia and his fellow townspeople as a raving lunatic, but a man who appeals to Gorchakov in his firm spiritual purpose. Domenico rails against the madness and depravity of the world, perceiving humanity to be on a path of destruction. He believes he can provide salvation if only he can cross the waters of the mineral baths of St. Catherine in Bagno Vignoni with a lit candle. All throughout, Gorchakov is possessed by pangs of memory, lyrical interludes depicting his life and loved ones in the Russian countryside.
"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. Russians are seldom able to adapt easily, to come to terms with a new way of life. The entire history of Russian emigration bears out the Western view that 'Russians are bad emigrants'; everyone knows their tragic incapacity to be assimilated, the clumsy ineptitude of their efforts to adopt an alien life-style. 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?"*
It makes a certain kind of sense that Tarkovsky, suffering from a sense of profound spiritual alienation, telling a semi-autobiographical story of a man suffering from a sense of profound spiritual alienation, would be operating from a position of artistic weakness and insecurity. It's possible that this is why I personally detect an aura of doubt, hesitation, and purposelessness in the proceedings. In a similar vein, an early dialogue in the film concerns the inherent untranslatable nature of poetry:
GORCHAKOV: What are you reading?
EUGENIA: Arseny Tarkovsky's poems.
GORCHAKOV: In Russian?
EUGENIA: No, it's a translation. Quite a good one.
GORCHAKOV: Throw it away.
EUGENIA: Why? The translator's a very good poet.
GORCHAKOV: Poetry is untranslatable, like the whole of art.
Tarkovsky seems to be grappling with the question of whether his specific artistic temperament, uprooted from the hardy permafrost of Russia, can survive the warmer climes of Italy. If he truly believes that art cannot be translated, then maybe he believes the artist cannot be translated either. Maybe an artist who is as spiritually bound to his country as Tarkovsky is to Russia is destined to remain at a certain remove from his art if he is not allowed to practice that art in his native land. Then again, watching the accompanying documentary VOYAGE IN TIME (also co-directed by Tarkovsky and his NOSTALGHIA co-writer, Antonioni’s go-to scribe Tonino Guerra) reveals that Tarkovsky spoke Italian fluently. Perhaps then NOSTALGHIA is not so much a matter of an artist being translated into a foreign language, as a case of an artist needing to adjust to working in a second language.
Despite the shift in environment, Tarkovsky does manage to suss out the Russia in Italy. He shoots and frames the Italian landscape unlike any major Italian director that I'm aware of, and every frame is still unmistakably a Tarkovsky image. Part of this is the director's usual bag of tricks: the crawling pace, the slow pans, the somber faces, the mossy overgrowth of interior spaces, the permeation of rain, the outbursts of fire. But part of it is unique: he manages to find the cold and ornate features of the rustic and exuberant Italian milieu. His focus on the interiority of characters expands outwards to infect the external world, and as a result, even the warm tones of Tuscany are rendered with his dour signature.
"I have to say that when I first saw all the material shot for the film I was startled to find it was a spectacle of unrelieved gloom. The material was completely homogeneous, both in its mood and in the state of mind imprinted in it. This was not something I had set out to achieve; what was symptomatic and unique about the phenomenon before me was the fact that, irrespective of my own specific theoretical intentions, the camera was obeying first and foremost my inner state during filming: I had been worn down by my separation from my family and from the way of life I was used to, by working under quite unfamiliar conditions, even by using a foreign language. I was at once astounded and delighted, because what had been imprinted on the film, and was now revealed to me for the first time in the darkness of the cinema, proved that my reflections about how the art of the screen is able, and even called, to become a matrix of the individual soul, to convey unique human experience, were not just the fruit of idle speculation but a reality, which here was unrolling incontrovertibly before my eyes..."*
Like most of Tarkovsky's pictures, NOSTALGHIA focuses a significant portion of its thematic material on matters of faith. SPOILERS follow in this paragraph. Domenico believes that crossing the mineral baths with a flaming candle will literally save humanity. But he is prevented by the townspeople of Bagno Vignoni from carrying out his divine mission, so he urges Gorchakov to try it himself. Domenico ultimately ends up in Rome, where he delivers an impassioned speech, before dousing himself in gasoline and self-immolating in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. This is a man whose faith in cataclysm is so strong that he locked his family up for years to keep them safe, and his faith eventually consumes him, blazing out in a ghastly funeral pyre. The penultimate scene returns us to Bagno Vignoni, where Gorchakov finally embarks on his surrogate mission to cross the mineral baths with a lit candle. But the mineral baths have been drained, so he is crossing an empty pit. In a nine-minute unbroken take that manages to build considerable suspense, Gorchakov tries repeatedly to carry a guttering flame across the distance, the weak light trembling in the open air. Finally he succeeds, but collapses (and presumably dies) upon accomplishing the feat. The flame here could represent faith, or maybe just that integral core of Gorchakov's identity, struggling to survive in hostile surroundings. For me it recalls any great task that I have confronted in my life, often trying and failing multiple times before achieving my original goal. Like most of the visual metaphors in Tarkovsky's work, there isn't one definitive answer. The final shot, on the other hand, is an unusually literal symbol for a Tarkovsky film: Gorchakov's ancestral home, transplanted to an Italian cathedral. The exiled Russian has taken root in Italy. Both Domenico and Gorchakov perceive chaos and disorder in the world, and both make symbolic gestures involving fire to reconcile their place in it.
While I don't connect with NOSTALGHIA as much as Tarkovsky's other films, there's no doubt that it is still a richly textured experience with all of his usual thematic profundity. While it doesn't feel as immaculate as STALKER or MIRROR, the fact that it comes across as alienated and tentative is an inextricable aspect of the narrative, and the form here most certainly matches the content. I'm already starting to feel a bit wistful about concluding this retrospective, with only THE SACRIFICE remaining. With THE SACRIFICE also comes a heavy reminder of a life ended too early, with many considerable contributions to art, and indeed humanity at large, left unmade.
"NOSTALGHIA is now behind me. It could never have occurred to me when I started shooting that my own, all too specific, nostalgia was soon to take possession of my soul for ever."*
* All quotes from "Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema" by Andrei Tarkovsky.