Italy. The present. Russian poet Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy) is travelling with his translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) while he researches a book on the life of a famous composer. Their relationship is tense and Gorchakov is haunted by thoughts of his wife and memories of his childhood back in Russia.
At a spa town, Gorchakov meets Domenico (Erland Josephson), a mystic who has experienced visions and is infamous for having locked his family away in preparation for the end of the world. A kinship is evident between Gorchakov and Domenico, and the mystic tasks Gorchakov to complete a symbolic act.
Readying to leave Italy – the act (to cross the drained spa with a candle which must be kept alight) not completed – Gorchakov is contacted by Eugenia who alerts him that Domenico, in an almost euphoric state, is preaching to crowds in Rome. When Domenico concludes an intense sermon on brotherhood and the necessity to strive for something better with an act of self-immolation, Gorchakov returns to the spa town to keep his promise.
‘Nostalgia’ is the one Tarkovsky film I’ve almost dreaded writing about. How does one discuss Domenico’s fiery departure from the film without making it sound unbearably melodramatic? How to describe the mise-en-scene and elliptic accretion of imagery which finds majestic synthesis in the very last shot without haring off into the realms of purple prose and pretentious parlance? How to communicate the sustained emotional power of an eight and a half minute take in which a man makes several slow shuffling attempts to cross an empty pool without a candle going out?
What makes ‘Nostalgia’ even harder to write about – as a fully paid-up atheist – is how deeply, profoundly religious it is. Even more so, arguably, than ‘The Sacrifice’ with its bargain-with-God premise. Gorchakov’s appointment with the pool and the candle goes beyond metaphor, beyond symbolism. By the end of those painful, interminable eight and a half minutes, the pool and the candle have become his own personal stations of the cross.
Then Tarkovsky throws in that indescribable, awe-inspiring final shot, the camera pulling slowly back from a fairly ordinary image, one already located in Gorchakov’s memories and referenced earlier in the film; the camera pulls back and a reflection in a pond (as in all of Tarkovsky’s work, water provides a wellspring of images*) suggests that there is a bigger picture, a larger element, something beyond the merely nostalgic or pastoral; slowly, gradually the camera pulls back until the whole astonishing image is revealed.
And even then the full import isn’t immediate. The visual bravura initially overwhelms; invokes comparison with the metaphysical imagery which closes ‘Solaris’. The combined emotional, intellectual and – damn it – spiritual meaning of the image gradually radiates from Tarkovsky’s mind, via the screen, and into the viewer’s.
Yes, I know, that comes across as hyperbolic and downright sloppy writing. But I can honestly find no other way of describing the cumulative power of ‘Nostalgia’. It is the cinematic equivalent of a religious experience.
*Sorry. Serious article; bad pun.