Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Keeper of the flame

The second scene of Nostalghia (1983), Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, offers us a broad view of a road weaving through a misty Italian countryside. A car enters the frame, exits the frame, and, some moments later, enters again; a woman and a man exit the car and move into the landscape, those cottony spectres of mist. The scene is conveyed in a single unbroken shot—no other director in history is so closely associated with extended shot duration as Tarkovsky. It is entrancing and beautiful, but also indicative of this film’s general air. Nearly everything that departs returns, while characters move through a fog that increasingly blurs present-tense reality from dreams of things lost.

Kino released Nostalghia on DVD and BD earlier this year, prompting a handful of critical reconsiderations of this, one of two films from the less-admired exile period in the oeuvre of the Russian director, who died in 1986. But anyone who watches any Tarkovsky film more than once knows well the way his films have of shifting with every visit—or even within a single viewing. How many times have I struggled with some aspect of these unusually personal, sensual, meandering, philosophy-smacked, sometimes downright cryptic films, only to reach the end and feel redeemed by their exalted, breath-taking visions and uncanny ability to find poetic closure? Cinema as travel: I’ve yet to encounter a Tarkovsky film that hasn’t left me feeling as though I’ve been transported, been through something.

Tarkovsky had certainly been through something by the time of Nostalghia’s release. He wouldn’t have had an easy time making his films in any country, but his frustrations with the micromanaging Soviet industry were particular and many, to the point where working abroad could mean permanent separation from his family. He’d been thinking of making a film in Italy since the mid-70s, and the project came about in part through his friendship and collaboration with Tonino Guerra, Antonioni’s regular co-scenarist. Yet Nostalghia is anything but a radical departure from the themes or MO of Tarkovsky’s previous films. As the title suggests, it is soaked in longing for the past, as well as apocalyptic sentiments about the present.

The story, such as it is, concerns a homesick Russian writer in Italy to research the life of a Russian composer who once lived there and suicide upon returning home. The writer travels with a young interpreter, a Renaissance beauty whose allure he seems to be working to resist, perhaps because of the wife waiting back home, perhaps because of some general contempt he feels toward a spiritually bankrupt West. Enter Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson, oddly cast but completely captivating), a local lunatic in the soggy Tuscan village where the writer wanders. Domenico claims that if he could just manage to cross St. Catherine’s Pool with a lit candle he could save the world. Nostalghia’s dramatic climax finds Domenico atop a statue in a public square, ranting about the world’s slide into perdition before immolating himself in front of a scattering of impassive onlookers. From fiery spectacle to one tiny precious flame: Tarkovsky cuts from Domenico’s flailing to the writer attempting the ostensible world-saving traversal Domenico hadn’t managed. Then comes the film’s final and most emblematic image: the writer seated before a Russian dacha that, impossibly, is nestled in the ruins of a colossal Italian cathedral—an image explicitly echoes the final image of Solaris (1973). A happy ending? It seems so to me. A reconciliation of past and present, cinema magic as a way of allowing both to exist simultaneously.

There are things that irk me in Nostalghia, like the writer’s condescension and somewhat insufferable gloominess—the guy could almost be an Antonioni protagonist—and Tarkovsky’s tendency to reduce women to symbols. Yet the sense of dream and memory’s hold on our psyche infuses the film with a watery soul-hauntedness that will stay with you forever. 

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