If the neorealist cinema of Vittorio de Sica and Federico Fellini explored the empirical essence of a man’s primordial soul, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia is the poetic expression of the spiritual soul. Andrei Gortchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), a Russian author, is on an Italian research expedition with his beautiful translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) to retrace the journey of an 18th Russian composer named Sosnovsky who, despite achieving international recognition away from his homeland, eschewed fame and returned to the humble life of a feudal serf, only to sink further into despair and commit suicide: the Madonna of Childbirth statue at a rural church where women pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary; a therapeutic hot springs pool in Bagno Vignoni where villagers bathe every morning, attempting to reclaim youth; an eccentric old man named Domenico (Erland Josephson) who once imprisoned his family for seven years in an apocalyptic delusion. Domenico implores Andrei with a seemingly innocuous task that he, considered mentally unstable by the villagers, is unable to execute, to cross the natural spring with a lit candle, as part of his redemptive design. Andrei is reluctant to undertake his incoherent request, but is intrigued by the fragmented messenger, and does not refuse him. He spurns the sensual Eugenia who inevitably leaves him, preferring to immerse himself in the solitude of his surreal memories and vague conversations. Note the chromatic shift between the lush Italian landscape and the muted tone of the Russian countryside, illustrating his nostalghia, the pervasive longing for meaning – the spiritual enlightenment – that has eluded him. Separated from his family, far from his homeland, and now alone, he sets out to perform the existential mission.
Highly cerebral, beautifully realized, and symbolically obscure, Nostalghia is a cinematic abstract of spiritual hunger. Indeed, Andrei’s indefinite journey, the church supplicants, and Domenico’s final incomprehensible act, manifest this innate longing. Note the final scene where Andrei shields the precariously lit candle by opening his overcoat. It is a symbolic revelation of the soul – the quest to unify the unexplored frontiers of his own subconscious and struggle against the extinguishing of the figurative spiritual flame – that inevitably redeems him. But it is an ominous closure, as muted colors now suffuse the Italian streets, tainting them with the same melancholic longing that consumes him. Tarkovsky filmed Nostalghia in exile and dedicated the film to the memory of his mother. It is a threnodic film that mourns an irretrievable past and an uncertain future.
© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.