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With: Oleg Yankovskiy, Erland Josephson, Domiziana Giordano, Patrizia Terreno
Written by: Andrei Tarkovsky, Tonino Guerra
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Russian, Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 125
Date: 01/08/1984

Nostalghia (1983)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Weight of Water

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ah, Andrei Tarkovsky. Even highbrow critics often complain of his films being "difficult." In the New York Times, on Nostalghia, Vincent Canby wrote that, "Loveliness, I'm afraid, is really what this movie is all about."

Yet it's amazing to think that Tarkovsky had his fans, and was able to make films at all, especially in 1983, when moviegoers spent more money on Return of the Jedi in one week than they did on the slightly more thoughtful The Right Stuff during its entire run. MTV had just launched, and Flashdance was another of the year's top hits. This was a time that, not only were people thinking in shorter and shorter bursts, but they were being encouraged to do it.

(It appears that Nostalghia only received a limited opening in the United States during this time; most Tarkovsky fans did not get to see it until much later, thanks to revivals and home video.)

The only evidence of it being 1983 in Nostalghia is a mention of an impending nuclear war, which was clearly on Tarkovksy's mind. He also used it as a point of reference in his final film, The Sacrifice (1986).

The setup -- I won't call it a plot -- involves a Russian poet, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), who travels to Italy to research the life of a 17th century Russian composer that spent some time there. Gorchakov has a shock of white hair on the back of his otherwise dark head, and he is often photographed with his back to the camera. Could this whiteness represent something profound?

Gorchakov has brought with him a translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), who I must admit that if you're fond of magnificently beautiful women, you should see this movie simply for her. Gorchakov and Eugenia open the film by visiting a church; most of the church's congregation are women who are praying for or about motherhood in some way. One woman prays to a statue, opens a flap on the statue's garment, and releases a flock of tiny birds.

Later they have an argument about translation. Then they visit a man named Domenico (Erland Josephson, known for his roles in many Ingmar Bergman films), who is said to have locked his entire family inside for seven years to survive the impending nuclear war. Gorchakov becomes fascinated, or rather entranced by him, and spends a long scene simply in his presence, with very little dialogue. Or perhaps there was more dialogue, but it simply washed over me.

Eugenia becomes enraged -- perhaps because he has not tried to sleep with her? -- insults Gorchakov mercilessly, and leaves. Domenico comes to Rome, gives a speech, and lights himself on fire. Then Gorchakov attempts to complete a ritual in which he carries a candle while walking through a kind of healing pool (I think). Every so often Gorchakov has a flashback, or a memory, or a fantasy, and these are shown in black-and-white. In some of them, his wife (I think) seems to be bonding with Eugenia.

As Canby points out, water is everywhere in Nostalghia and appears to mean something to Tarkovsky. It begins to rain while Gorchakov visits Domenico, and his home becomes quickly flooded, filling up plastic pouches and empty soda bottles. Characters often stand up to their shins in water. What does it mean? It's one of those things that will be left up to each individual viewer. Tarkovsky himself remarked that water is both "mysterious" and "beautiful," adding that he liked water in small places rather than the ocean, which he found "monotonous." As for me, I will simply remind viewers that water is that remarkable thing that can both create life and destroy it.

Indeed, Nostalghia contains many passages in which viewers are simply invited to explore and ponder, with no dialogue or clues given. Many viewers, used to "turning off their brains" can become fidgety during such sequences, but if you let yourself become immersed, you can almost meditate on the concerns and ideas that Tarkovsky has brought to the film. That's why, possibly, he has concentrated on making the images so striking and so pleasing.

Yes, Tarkovsky's films are difficult, and it could be that Nostalghia is one of the more difficult ones, given that its reputation is not quite as high as those of Andrei Rublev, Mirror, Solaris, or Stalker. But he was a great artist and poet of the cinema, and one who showed the world how far movies could go.

Kino Lorber has released this on a new Blu-ray edition. The image transfer hasn't been cleaned up, and still contains pops and scratches, but these things are hardly distracting, and the film's luminous quality certainly comes through, as well as its mysterious soundtrack. The disc has optional subtitles and a trailer.

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