Saturday, July 7, 2018

Short Essays on Film: On Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Nostalgia

This is film as the art of contemplation. Tarkovsky, here as elsewhere, employs long, lingering shots that ultimately suggest that the story isn’t created there on the screen but in the viewer’s imagination. For most modern viewers seeking fast-paced entertainment, Tarkovsky’s approach could be maddening, eliciting a painful feeling of boredom. But for a viewer who can settle in and is willing to spend the time required, without recourse to speed and flash, a Tarkovsky film can be thoroughly enlightening and entertaining. Nostalgia is just such a film. When it first came out, the New York Times reviewer, Vincent Canby, said that this is a film in which “nothing happens”. It’s true – nothing happens, and it’s marvellous.

Though the plot is fairly straightforward, the approach is not. Russian poet, Andrei Gorchakov, is in Italy to research the life of an 18th century Russian composer who had lived in Tuscany. Andrei employs a beautiful Italian translator, Eugenia, who falls in love with him and ends up leaving because the poet rebuffs her advances. Before this, they travel to an Italian village to view frescoes by Piero della Francesca in a Tuscan convent where the Madonna of Childhood is visited by young women hopeful for a child. In the village, Andrei meets Domenico, a rather mad prophet, who asks the poet to fulfill the task of carrying a lit candle across a mineral pool to save the world. Throughout, time is used by Tarkovsky as a tool of free association – scenes don’t necessarily follow in a linear order.

Every frame in the film is a painting by Caravaggio or Rembrandt or Titian. If Caravaggio were a filmmaker, this is the film he would shoot. In one of those long takes that Tarkovsky loves, we see two bottles standing in the rain, slowly filling with rainwater as the two main characters walk about, talking. As in many of his films, the rain is falling indoors, in an old rundown house in the Italian countryside where Domenico lives. Although Tarkovsky would likely deny it (‘rain is rain,’ he said), for me this recurring image of indoor rain suggests the fecundity of imagination, the richness of inner worlds and dreamscapes.

A film by Tarkovsky is much like a long poem, with its recurring images that resonate with each other in a kind of visual rhyming. (I’m reminded of the Odyssey’s repeated refrains about the ‘wine-dark seas’ and ‘rosy-fingered dawns’.) In Nostalgia, these images include mirrors (that often reflect the two main characters), circles, rain (as already mentioned), a dog, a child, mist, a ruin of a church open to the sky, lit candles. Even background sounds have their repetition: rain again, dripping water, clocks, ringing phones, voices, bells, and so on.

In some sense, everything is inverted in this world: rain falls indoors, churches are open to the sky, out of nowhere a large dog suddenly appears in a hotel room.
The echo or resonance of several of these images and visual rhymes is subtle and intriguing. A round mirror in the hotel bathroom is later echoed by a bicycle wheel which is echoed by a high empty window in the church ruin which is echoed by the rising sun. All these circles are roughly the same size on screen.

Many of the scenes in this film are stunning. In a chapel, a young woman kneels before the Madonna of Childbirth as she intones a prayer that reveals her longing for a child. At the end of the prayer, she pulls open the lower portion of the Madonna’s robes, suddenly releasing dozens of small birds on the air.

Tarkovsky is a master of scenes that incorporate his favourite images. In another scene, the police have rescued a family in the village after seven years of entrapment in their house by their father and husband, the mad Domenico, who fears the craziness and absurdity of the world. Once outside, the mother falls to her knees and kisses the earth. Right next to her, a full bottle of milk is chugging out its contents onto the ground. Milk appears as a significant image in every Tarkovsky film.

In another scene, Andrei takes an afternoon nap in his hotel room. We see him fully clothed, asleep on the bed. On one side of the room, the shutters have been opened wide and a heavy rain falls into thick foliage outside. On the other side, we see into a bathroom with the round mirror on the wall and a bentwood chair with a circle at its back. Suddenly, inexplicably, a large dog hurries out of the bathroom and settles on the floor next to the bed. There has been no indication that a dog was lurking in the bathroom. Is this the arrival of a dream? Perhaps.

In another, later scene, mad Domenico has gone to Rome. We see him giving a speech about mankind’s need to return to a simpler, less selfish way of life. The thin crowd appears to include escapees from an asylum. As he speaks, he stands on the hindquarters of the horse of Marcus Aurelius, a famous statue on the Piazza Campidoglio in the heart of Rome. At the end of his speech, he douses himself in gasoline and self-immolates, falling to the ground to the sound of a barking dog. Domenico, in flames, rolls to the feet of a person holding a sign which reads ‘Tomorrow is the End of the World’. The end of the world is, of course, another favourite Tarkovsky theme.

In the final scene of the film, we see the Russian poet and the dog sitting on the ground, a pool of water before them. Three thick, candle-shaped reflections can be seen in the pool. As the camera pulls back, we realize they are sitting inside the roofless church open to the sky. The reflections in the pool are from three empty windows high up in the church. We notice that everything is inside the church: the poet, the dog, the pool of water, a country house, the countryside. This being Tarkovsky with his interest in the spiritual life, the message here seems clear to me – not just the church and its contents are sacred but the entire world is sacred. Nothing is excluded.

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