Andrei Tarkovsky, the exact contemporary of the French filmmaker Francois Truffaut (1932-1986), made only seven feature films in his thirty-year career, but their prestige has elevated him to almost mythical status. Ingmar Bergman called him the greatest director of all, while Tarkovsky himself listed three of Bergman’s own films among his personal top ten. The two men had much in common: a brooding sense of history and the loss of sacramental culture; solitary protagonists unmoored from their surroundings and incapable of sustaining relationships; a longing for childhood innocence juxtaposed against a frank, even brutal sense of adult cruelties. What Bergman saw in Tarkovsky was a greater poetic fluidity and a more intuitive connection to subconscious states of feeling. This, indeed, is what makes Tarkovsky’s cinema haunting and indelible; it is also what makes it elusive and at times frustrating. One needs patience for it, and a willingness to suspend the normal criteria we bring to watching film—character, plot, and action.
A case in point is his penultimate film, Nostalghia (1983), which borrows a favorite Bergman actor, Erland Josephson, and which, shot in Italy, marked a final break in his relations with the Soviet authorities who had long tormented him, and, according to still-persistent rumor, ultimately poisoned him. Tarkovsky finished the film with Italian and French financial backing, and never returned to his native Russia; his last film, Sacrifice, was to be made in Sweden, again using a Bergman regular, the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
Exile is the theme of Nostalghia. Its hero, Andrei Gortchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), has Tarkovsky’s own first name, and, if the point needed further emphasis, refers to the director’s own father, the poet Arseni Tarkovsky. The film Andrei is himself a poet, who is traveling in Italy with a voluptuous young translator, Eugenia (Dominiziana Giordano) while his wife remains in Russia. The ostensible reason for his trip is to research a biography of an eighteenth-century serf composer, Pavel Sosnovsky, who escaped to the West, won acclaim, but, unable to bear separation from his homeland, returned, surrendered himself, and ultimately committed suicide. We don’t see Andrei doing any work on this, however, or on anything else. The presence of Eugenia likewise seems superfluous, since his Italian seems adequate and he is giving no readings or other public appearances. We presume they’re having an affair, but this isn’t the case. The only service Eugenia is asked to perform is to introduce Andrei to a local lunatic, Domenico (Josephson), who has apocalyptic visions and had kept his family locked up for years to “protect” them from the world. A disgusted Eugenia confronts Andrei in his room, baring a breast in a gesture at once erotic and maternal, but, again, he fails to respond.
Maternity is nonetheless a critical element in Nostalghia. At the beginning of the film, Eugenia stops at the Tuscan chapel that houses Piero della Francesca’s Madonna of Childbirth. The chapel is visited by desperate women seeking fertility, but Eugenia denies being either a believer or having an interest in childbearing. The sacristan shrugs, sensing some deeper distress in her—indeed, she seems almost to have wandered onto the premises from an Antonioni film—but she can’t define it for herself, and she’s chosen the wrong customer in Andrei for the conventional relief of a love affair.
Andrei’s conduct is even more perplexing. He tells Eugenia that all translation is a misrepresentation, yet when she responds by asking how people can otherwise know each other, he replies with the apparent nonsequitur, “By abolishing frontiers between states.” The barrier of language symbolizes that of borders, but how can the latter be transcended without the former? Andrei doesn’t explain himself; it’s hard enough to drag a single cryptic remark from him without hoping for two. Nonetheless, there’s a suggestion of what Tarkovsky has in mind in the town where Andrei finds Domenico, St. Catherine in Bagno Vignoni, which contains an allegedly wonder-working pool. The town has taken its name from Catherine of Siena, the fourteenth-century saint who strove to reconcile Western and Orthodox Christianity. Six centuries later, Soviet Russia is officially atheist, and Italy is a carnivalesque tourist mecca: the medieval Respublica Christiana is no longer even a dream. Yet spiritual hunger is only the greater.
What Andrei seems to see in Domenico is a version of the archetypal Russian holy fool, a man of instinctive piety although simpleminded and often unbalanced. But the modern fool, too, has lost his way. Domenico climbs a pillar to preach an incoherent sermon suggesting the end of the world, and then sets himself ablaze. Andrei is left to carry out Domenico’s parting injunction, that someone who crosses the sacred pool carrying a candle will redeem the world, or at least rekindle its faith. Andrei appears to make this crossing, although whether he reaches the end is not clear, and whether it is a hopeful gesture or simply the last act of his despair—he has a weak heart, and may be dealing all this while with the premonition of his mortality—is likewise unresolved.
For Andrei, and for Tarkovsky himself, the vision of Christian Europe’s lost unity appears symbolic as well of a more personal division. Andrei speaks of abolishing frontiers, yet, like Sosnovsky, he longs for his homeland, or at least the idealized memory of it. Exile repels him, is perhaps killing him—“I’m tired of these sickeningly beautiful sights,” he says—but the Russia he yearns for is irrecoverable too. The film’s last scene shows him in the generically Russian landscape that forms its opening shot, with a peasant hut and a large tree. He sits on the ground with a dog, facing us but looking inward. Slowly, a ruined Roman cathedral rises around him, enclosing the scene. There’s nothing more to say, or show.
In looking at the first cut of the film, Tarkovsky remarked that he was startled to find it “a spectacle of unrelieved gloom.” One wonders what he expected. For the rest of us, this riddling film leaves more questions than answers—perhaps, only questions—but the long shots (sometimes alternating with spasmodic action), the strikingly framed shots, the densely saturated atmosphere, all create an aura of disturbance that lingers in the mind. We think of film as a spatial medium, but it is equally a temporal one; Tarkovsky himself described his work as “sculpting in time.” The great filmmakers have always been aware of both elements, and, although they are interrelated, some—a Dreyer, a Bresson, a Bergman too—have privileged time. Space leaves you outside, but time takes you inside, and if human psychology and the human predicament is what interests you, you’ll engage the viewer in your particular sense of it. Tarkovsky draws you in, and doesn’t relinquish his spell.