Building with Wood

Gilberto Perez

  • Tarkovsky by Nathan Dunne
    Black Dog, 464 pp, £29.95, February 2008, ISBN 978 1 906155 04 9
  • Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema by Robert Bird
    Reaktion, 255 pp, £15.95, April 2008, ISBN 978 1 86189 342 0

The first film Andrei Tarkovsky shot outside the Soviet Union was Nostalghia – spelled that way because ‘nostalgia’ is too weak an equivalent for the Russian word, the Russian emotion. Made in Italy in 1982-83, it begins with a visit to the Tuscan church where Piero della Francesca painted his fresco of the pregnant Virgin Mary, the Madonna del Parto. But the scene wasn’t shot there. James Macgillivray, in his contribution to a new volume of essays edited by Nathan Dunne, tells us that Tarkovsky had a reproduction of Piero’s painting installed in the crypt of another Romanesque church about 75 miles away. And though he always insisted that film be grounded in material fact – the church is real even if the fresco is not – he took other liberties with reality in his treatment of space and time.

The Russian protagonist, called Andrei and afflicted with homesickness, has come with his Italian interpreter, Eugenia, to look at the Madonna del Parto; but on arriving at the church he tells her he doesn’t want to go in, and she enters the crypt alone. ‘Three kinds of space dominate all Tarkovsky’s films,’ Robert Bird writes: ‘nature, the home, and the shrine or cathedral.’ The ‘cathedral space is demonstrated most fully at the beginning of Nostalghia . . . in the rigorously geometrical yet disconcertingly elusive space of a columned crypt’. One reason for transposing Piero’s fresco to the apse of this crypt must have been its columniation, which strikes us the moment we cut inside and envelops us along with Eugenia as we follow her from a distance on her way to the painting. ‘In church architecture, a grid of columns reinforces one’s orientation in space relative to the direction of the apse,’ Macgillivray observes. ‘In Tarkovsky’s hands, however, this grid becomes like a dark wood.’

Near the apse, Eugenia retreats a little and does a right-angle turn towards the camera. There is a cut to what we presume she’s looking at, but it’s the painting we see, though it isn’t in the direction of her glance. A cut on a character’s glance will conventionally show us the facing area, the reverse angle, after which we will usually return to the character. Here Tarkovsky breaks with convention and then goes back to it: from Eugenia’s glance he cuts to the painting she isn’t looking at, but from the painting he cuts back to Eugenia looking at it after all. He gives us contradictory cues; we can’t be sure whether we have or haven’t been viewing Piero’s fresco with her. And no sooner does she appear facing the apse than her attention shifts to a sacristan in the church, who asks her what she’s there for – as the director seems to be asking her – and she again faces the camera.

Actors in Tarkovsky’s films often look straight at the camera. This can be done without disturbing the illusion of reality, so long as the actor’s gaze is seen to stay within the fiction. Tarkovsky’s actors, however, turn their eyes to the camera in ways that unsettle the illusion, their gaze breaking out of the world of the film. We may wonder whether the actor is looking at us in the audience or responding to the filmmaker behind the camera; sometimes, the gaze is followed by a dream or memory sequence, or by some other sort of scene from elsewhere in time and space. In the science-fictional Solaris (1972), moving images from the past speak to the present on screens within the film, and characters watching those images as well as characters appearing in them look at the camera, which puts us right in the line of an exchange of glances between the present and the past. Simple still photography can achieve the same effect: the mother in Solaris gazes out at the viewer from a photograph; her look is haunting, yet this is just what people do – they look at the camera when having their picture taken. Tarkovsky makes us see what a remarkable thing we do when we exchange glances with a picture, how marvellous it is that eyes can gaze into another place and time. Perhaps the most affecting look at the camera in any of his films occurs near the end of Mirror (1975), when the mother, pregnant with the film’s protagonist and asked whether she wants a boy or a girl, thinks about the future that has come to pass and smilingly, tearfully, flickeringly glances in our direction.

Until its removal to a museum a few years ago, Piero’s pregnant Madonna was for a long time a shrine. Women would come and pray to her for a child of their own and for a safe birth. Eugenia tells the sacristan that she has just come to look; he advises her to kneel before the Virgin, but she can’t bring herself to do it. As he admonishes her for her lack of faith, she faces him and the camera, and we cut to a ritual of the faithful, a procession of women into the crypt carrying burning candles and a life-size statue of the Virgin. The procession moves forward, as Macgillivray notes, ‘to the very space in which Eugenia and the sacristan stand’ – yet Eugenia and the sacristan have unaccountably vanished, as if the ritual had made them disappear and taken their place. The sculpture of the Virgin is set before the painting it doubles, and as one of the pious women kneels down to pray, we cut back to Eugenia standing exactly where the woman kneels. The woman, the statue and the devotional ritual evaporate as soon as we return to Eugenia and the sacristan, who at times seem to glance offscreen towards the ritual proceedings but are never shown onscreen together with them. We alternate between Eugenia’s talk with the sacristan and a religious ceremony that inhabits the same space but never at the same time, as if it belonged to a parallel reality. Film, Tarkovsky maintained – he gave the example of the Lumière brothers’ movie of a train arriving at a station – is in essence ‘imprinted time’. The ceremony he staged at the shrine of the Madonna of Childbirth may be taken to represent another order of time from which the faithless Eugenia is excluded: not the time of the moment, present or past, but the time that endures over centuries, the collective memory preserved in the minds of the faithful and ritually enacted by them.

At the climax of the ceremony, a flock of birds is released from the sculpted Virgin’s belly. We might suppose that Eugenia is watching this spectacle, from which we cut to her and then, as she glances towards the camera, back to the birds flying around the apse; but she isn’t looking in that direction, and there are no birds in this shot of her, though we hear them chirping. With Tarkovsky we can never be sure what a character looking at the camera is looking at. Now in close-up, Eugenia looks again towards the camera, and we cut to Piero’s painting and zoom in on the serene countenance of his pregnant Virgin. Isn’t this, at least, from Eugenia’s point of view? Perhaps not, because from the Madonna we cut to Andrei outside the church, and he too is looking at the camera; though he didn’t go in to look at the painting, he seems to be returning its gaze. Where is he? The film has shifted from colour to black and white, and from Tuscany to Andrei’s memory or dream of Russia. Yet a bird’s feather now drifts into the landscape of his Russian remembrance: a material connection to the ritual of the Madonna that has eluded Eugenia. Somehow it is he, not she, who is looking at the Madonna del Parto, he not she who is truly in touch with its meaning.

I admire this opening sequence, which is a notable example of Tarkovsky’s distinctive, difficult style. But I can’t say I like the movie as a whole. Here is the director’s own account of his first look at the footage he shot for Nostalghia:

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