Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)
Removed from his native Russia, Andrei Tarkovsky creates his penultimate film Nostalghia in Italy. Not surprisingly, the film echoes Tarkovsky's longing for his homeland, shown in the beginning as a scene captured from inside a structure through a glassy window pane in sepia tones. These sepia-toned sequences are interspersed throughout the feature, presumably detailing a fading sense of home --- no longer distinct memories but mere emotions, nostalgia. The length of time away from Russia, the overpowering cultural influences of Italy --- all these turn images of home into murky and amorphous visualizations of the Russian countryside which is very distinct from the geometric precision of Italy's vistas, with its grandiose cathedrals and architectural structures.
Tarkovsky lays out the film in simplistic fashion. There are no narrative nuances or dramatic arcs that forward the plot. It seems that his cinema breathes from the gorgeous tableaus he creates and the evocative lingering of his camera that slowly reveals emotional lines in the faces or the quiet gestures that were previously hidden. It is dense with spiritual and thematic weight; and it feels like Tarkovsky can talk about so many things simultaneously using his infallible imagery and symbolisms. Ever-present are his persistent representations of rain, of fire, of birds and dogs, and his troubled male protagonist with an aching desire of profound nature. We can barely scrape the surface of Tarkovsky's art yet even with the meager and incomplete appreciation of Tarkovsky's masterpiece, hungers are satisfied.
Andrei (Oleg Yankovsky) is a poet who is traveling through Italy to retrace the life of Sosnovsky, a composer who became famous in Italy but decided to repatriate to become a serf in his country. His only companion is Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), his translator. Tarkovsky initiates the film in a barren field wherein a car drives past the frame, only to reveal in the foreground. Eugenia appears and invites Andrei to see a famous painting of the Madonna; the latter refuses the offer saying that he is tired of seeing all these beautiful things. The sequence inside the chapel gives us a quiet glimpse of Eugenia's character. Formidably juxtaposed with the pious women and the the idolized Mary, she questions an old man why it is mostly women who pray in the chapel. The old man declares his simplicity and proclaims the duties of women as mothers. Before leaving the chapel, she witnesses a little miracle, of Mary's statue opening up to reveal dozens of birds in flight.
A subtle romance can be observed between Andrei and Eugenia. In their hotel's lobby, they discuss of poetry and music. Andrei nonchalantly challenges Eugenia's admiration for Arseni Tarkovsky's poetry which according to him cannot be appreciated in its translated form; he goes on proclaiming that national barriers should be removed. Andrei is reluctant and obviously separated from the world. His knowledge of Italian is enough but insists on using a translator to converse with people, until he meets Domenico (Erland Josephson), the town's madman who is reported to have trapped his family in his home in order to save them from the apocalypse. His need for Eugenia no longer persists and Eugenia can no longer stand the man Andrei is becoming --- closer to the laughing stock Domenico is, with his amazement with the vagueness of religion and faith.
In a scene wherein Eugenia confronts Andrei, she reveals her breast, taunting Andrei to admit that that is all he wants in her. Although extrinsically, the confrontation connotes a sexual linkage between the two individuals, a more apt interpretation can be given. Looking back, we witness Eugenia's reluctance to appreciate motherhood as a woman's primary aspect. Upon defeat by Domenico, she reluctantly compromises and offers just exactly that, a breast, the symbol for motherhood.
Domenico then requests Andrei to complete his mission: to cross the sulfuric baths with a lighted candle. Away from Eugenia, Andrei succumbs to soulsearching --- images of Russia are slowly intermixed with that of Rome, both in sepia, presumably both forming a part of Andrei's spiritual ache. Little bits and pieces of his homeland appear --- the gorgeously lighted greens of Russia take centerstage in Domenico's unkempt lair, murky mossy puddle water floods a ruined church, Domenico's dog is also very prominent in Andrei's own dreams. It is during these moments that Andrei feels most human, most susceptible to contact.
The film ends the same way Solaris ends, with an image as haunting or uplifting as it is sublime. Andrei sits comfortably in a pastoral landscape --- the same cabin which appears in his murky memories are in the background. Tarkovsky's camera zooms out to reveal a masterful surprise --- the landscape becomes sheltered within the structure of a ruined cathedral. Droplets of rain start pouring and at once, we are confounded with the repercussions of that phantasmagoric last scene. Yet it's not totally out of place as it appears in sepia; not as an imagery as real as his arguments with Eugenia or Domenico's tragic speeches in Rome, it's equal to the feelings of longing, of nostalgia he has for his homeland. It certainly feels that with the last scene, as preceded by his sacrifice (a long take featuring Andrei's fulfillment of Domenico's mission), connotes a satisfaction for his craving to be home, despite being in another land.