Tarkovsky naturally incorporates his own time abroad into the film, which could make Nostalghia an echo of the present to match Mirror’s loose exploration of the director’s past.
After completing Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky went to Italy to make the documentary Voyage in Time. While there, he wrote the script for his next feature, Nostalghia, which he also intended to shoot in the country. Initially backed by Mosfilm, the project would eventually lose funding from his homeland, and when the completed film played at Cannes, Soviet authorities directly intervened to ensure it did not win the Palme D’Or. This was the final straw for Tarkovsky, who had seen too many of his projects interfered with or terminated by censors, and he would never again work in the Soviet Union.
That Nostalghia unintentionally marked the director’s break with his home country is, in retrospect, entirely fitting. The film is a dreamscape of alienation, of visualizing the internal struggle of leaving behind one’s home and the pang of loss that accompanies any departure but ones of Russian leaving the Motherland. The specificity of Russian longing is so foregrounded that the film’s protagonist, a writer, even travels to Italy just to study a Russian composer who emigrated there and committed suicide upon returning home.
Tarkovsky naturally incorporates his own time abroad into the film, which could make Nostalghia an echo of the present to match Mirror’s loose exploration of the director’s past. His stand-in, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), initially seems game for his trip, opting to go on a tour of religious frescoes in Tuscany. When they head into one church, however, Gorchakov suddenly demurs at actually viewing the frescoes, attacked by a moment of religious doubt that even makes his guide and translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), back away from a painting. As the two debate this moment of hesitation, a religious procession marches through the church and its cavernous interior, holding aloft an icon as they silently march. One woman then heads to the huge religious ornament, a representation of Mary, and prays to become a mother, opening the statue’s dress to unleash a flock of doves within.
This lurch into the strange and poetic defines the film’s strange energy. As in Mirror, Nostalghia occupies a liminal space between reality and dream, and if anything this film blurs the line between the two even more aggressively. Even its opening shot, of figures walking by a lake before the frame freezes in place, feels like a quotidian bit of neorealism that suddenly turns surreal. The film swaps between color and black-and-white, though the former is so desaturated that it is sometimes difficult to tell when an image is chromatic. Given that the black-and-white footage represents Gorchakov’s memories of home, the occasional indistinguishability makes present and past occupy the same space in the protagonist’s mind. Fluctuations in film speed and asynchronous sound compound the sense of dissociation, turning the concrete into the abstract often within the same shot.
Impressively, the film even uses classical Italian architecture to induce a sense of alienation. God, it is said, does not draw in straight lines, and Tarkovsky homes in on the intense symmetry of old Italian buildings. Church interiors are filled with columns so precisely placed that they look like military formations, and the director frequently places the camera to film down narrow streets and through open doorways to create images with perfect right angles that center Gorchakov but dwarf him against looming backdrops. Comparatively, Gorchakov’s dreams and memories of Russia feature shots that are de-centered and stress nature, even when that nature is cold and barren. The framing here can be every bit as beautiful as the shots in Italy, but they lack the suffocatingly mannered precision, introducing at least a hint of naturalism even as the scenes of Gorchakov’s reflections on Russia are the ones most driven by dream logic.
The loose narrative foregrounds the protagonist’s, and by extension the director’s, narcissism in experiencing the beauty of the world and using it as pretense to focus on his own internal philosophies. Gorchakov’s endless pontificating rapidly exhausts Eugenia, though he finds a kindred spirit in Domenico (Erland Josephson), a local eccentric who attempts to cross a large fountain while keeping a candle lit, a kind of ritual devoted only to his own obsessive behavior. The fountain where he practices overflows with mist, lending it a kind of suspended, ethereal atmosphere outside of reality, a fitting realm for two characters so lost in their own heads. The background as a manifestation of the protagonist’s headspace recurs later when Tarkovsky references Stalker in a scene where a rainstorm sends water cascading into a desiccated concrete building, the flood capturing his own rush of sensations that he struggles to compartmentalize.
“Poetry is untranslatable, like the whole of art,” Gorchakov says early in the film, and Nostalghia in some ways feels like a futile attempt to translate the inspirational and ruminative thoughts within the protagonist’s head. Gorchakov himself, both self-doubting and vain, struggles to appreciate the beauty of the moment compared to the selective editing of memory. This culminates in a final shot that may be the most glorious, and disturbing, moment in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. Collapsing back into memory, Gorchakov ends up “back home” on his farm lying on the ground, only for the camera to slowly pull back and reveal that the farm and its surrounding land exist at the center of a colossal church structure. The juxtaposition between the quaint farm and the gigantic, reality-shattering assembly behind it is initially terrifying, but it could also symbolize Gorchakov making peace with his frustrations, finding a way to bring one’s home wherever he goes. In an instant, Tarkovsky’s most narrowly focused work reverses course to be one of his most far-ranging.