At the Movies

Michael Wood

Andrei Tarkovsky made his last two films, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice, in Italy and Sweden, and never returned to Russia. He died in Paris in 1986, aged 54. He was out of favour with the Soviet authorities then, later lionised as a master, and placed in the company of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, though his approach to film can seem antithetical to theirs. His work is often thought to be difficult and slow, based on a sort of undoing of montage, and he replied to such criticism by saying it wasn’t difficult and slow enough. We have a chance to think, or think again, about all seven of his major films – the others are Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror and Stalker – since new prints of them are now touring the UK.

I started my rethinking with Nostalghia (1983) – the ‘h’ is there to mark the transliteration from the Russian, and to stave off the heartwarming sound of the soft ‘g’ in the French or Italian or English pronunciation. Tarkovsky said it was a better film than The Sacrifice (1986) because ‘no ideas were being brought forward in it, and thereby it was closer to a poetic image, to poetry’ – this is what Layla Alexander-Garrett reports in Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector of Dreams (2012). The proposition looks flimsy, if not delusional, since the film is crowded with ideas, awkwardly expressed by actors who look as if they are figures in a Bergman movie waiting for the real director to show up. But are the ideas ‘brought forward’, and are they what matters? We might ask a similar question about the ‘poetic image’ – in this case we would need to know not whether the claim is true but what sort of film-making hides in the words.

Insofar as it tells a story at all, Nostalghia presents us with Gorchakov, played by Oleg Yankovsky, a Russian writer working on a biography of an 18th-century compatriot, a musician who lived in Italy before returning to Russia to die. He is accompanied by the glamorous interpreter Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), who has an unnerving episode in a church where a fresco by Piero della Francesca forms the background to anxious beseechings of the Virgin to foment motherhood. The ritual involves dozens of birds flying out of the heart of her statue, and we witness Eugenia’s disturbed failure to bring herself to kneel in respect as she is asked to. A little later, she almost steals the film with the spectacular tantrum she has because the writer won’t pay her any amorous attention. He can’t do that, because he is too busy making sure that she and the audience know that gloomy Russians really can be gloomy. He is a little bothered by her outburst, though, calls her insane, and has a long nosebleed. After this, she rather fades from sight, but not before they visit the spa of Bagno Vignoni, where the eccentrics taking the waters, wading in steam amid the half-ruined buildings, place us somewhere between Buñuel and Fellini, and where they meet the local madman, Domenico (Erland Josephson), who now lives alone in his ruined house but is famous for having locked up his wife and children there for seven years, in order to save them from the end of the world. The local police finally got them out and took them away.

The film’s greatest sequence (though not the most famous) occurs when Gorchakov and Domenico have their long non-conversation. Both are haunted, trapped in their own nightmares, but each seems to place a hope in the other. They say a word or two, but mainly they prowl around the ruined house, glancing now and again into stained or peeling mirrors. The whole house is soaking wet, the rain pours through the ceiling and rattles against bottles placed on the floor, which has turned into a bumpy pattern of mud and water. At one point a close-up turns the floor into a landscape of hills and lakes, and since there is no visual reference point to mark a dimension, it’s hard to believe we are still indoors, and we are reassured only when the camera lifts itself over a windowsill to show the world outside. The most striking moment occurs perhaps when Gorchakov leaves, stepping through the puddles, walking past a doorframe which stands alone, unaccompanied by any walls, in the middle of the ruined space. Domenico carefully opens the door and goes through it.

Tarkovsky likes the effect of uncertain dimensions, the suggestion that a room could be a landscape, or even that any place could be another place or two places, and ends his film on an amazing version of it. We look at Gorchakov sitting on the ground in front of the wooden house in the country we have already seen frequently in the movie as part of his memory of Russia, his wife and his children. His dog is beside him, and both look towards the camera. His family is not in sight. As the camera pulls back we realise that this Russian scene is placed inside a ruined Italian church we have glimpsed once before, presumably one of the places Gorchakov visited in the narrative present time of the film. The picture is easy to allegorise: his present-day Russia will always be framed by the old Italy he can’t leave. But the visual effect isn’t one of allegory. It’s more like a mystery. The rural scene is peaceful, the ruin is beautiful, why aren’t we more troubled by their impossible juxtaposition? Don’t we care that these meetings happen only in movies?

The encounter of Gorchakov with Domenico does start a genuine storyline in the film, but it has some very odd pauses and twists. Domenico feels that all will be well in the world if someone can walk the length of the pool in the spa with a lighted candle in hand. He has tried, often, but knows he is meant to fail. He gives Gorchakov a small candle, and the Russian promises to make the attempt. Not now, though, because he’s leaving. Not ever, probably, because after a short stay in Rome he plans to go back to Russia. In Rome he learns that Domenico is there too, preaching love and brotherhood from the back of the statue of Marcus Aurelius and his horse, and scolding humankind for the error of its ways. Here as with the visitors in the spa waters, the extras are almost as important as the major players. Dotted around the Roman square, planted on the tall steps leading away from it, are some forty or fifty figures, some agitated, some just staring, all situated at a distance from their nearest neighbour. This scene does have the feel of a powerful allegory; it’s hard to think of a better image of a lonely crowd.

Domenico winds up his speech, calls for music, and a supporter hands him a can of petrol. The music – Beethoven – is a little late to come over the speakers, but Domenico knows what he is doing. With only a little hesitation, he clicks open a lighter and sets himself on fire. He falls from the statue and dies in flames.

Gorchakov doesn’t see any of this because he has decided to postpone his departure and return to Bagno Vignoni to fulfil his promise. The last scene of the movie – this is the most famous – takes about ten minutes and shows us Gorchakov trying, in real time, to walk the length of the now drained pool with a lighted candle in his hand. The allegory is irresistible this time, and no doubt fully intended. Yet this long, wonderful scene doesn’t feel like an allegory as we follow it, doesn’t feel as if it has, or needs, a meaning at all, or at least not an obvious or easily paraphrasable one. It’s true that Tarkovsky, according to the actor Yankovsky, was thinking of the use of candles in the Eastern church, and said he wanted to ‘display an entire human life in one shot, without any editing’. But then the absence of editing seems more interesting than the symbolism.

Tarkovsky loves to concentrate on scraps and remains, objects that are broken, forgotten, thrown away. These materials are not meaningfully juxtaposed, turned into film language. They are just litter, but there is a lost world in them, and the camera remembers it – remembers it as lost, to be sure, but that is how memory works. The candle in Nostalghia is not forgotten or thrown away yet, but it soon will be, and as Gorchakov walks hesitantly along the pool, tiny flame flickering before him, all you can think of is the candle itself, mindless and without meaning, but threatened by the wind – at this moment, on film, as we watch.