Tarkovsky – Nostalghia (1983)

Making the mental shift away from narrative cinema (even Haneke is a narrative film-maker; he just explodes or subverts the narrative) can be a trial. It’s like any transition: it makes you feel inadequate as a viewer. I’ve never seen a Tarkovsky film before, and (since I am obeying my first rule, which is never to know a thing about what you’re about to watch) so I wasn’t prepared. Tarkovsky is dealing in imagery, pure and not very simple. The nostalgia of the title (it’s filmed in Italian, and was his first film outside Russia) is about yearning to go home, but also perhaps about yearning to understand the past, and yearning even to understand a culture you don’t understand.

Nostalghia is on one level the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen, even though it is also one of the most bewildering. A Russian poet and his glamorous young Italian interpreter go to a small town to research a long-dead composer. While there the poet, who has no interest in the interpreter (who would appear to have an interest in him), meets the local lunatic, who has once locked up his large family for seven years to keep them pure. The poet sees this man as a sympathetic and sage-like figure (there is a Laingian interlude about the mad being sane). He therefore accepts what the man says, and agrees to undertake a ritual, which involves carrying a candle from one end of a spa pool (drained) to the other, whilst keeping it alight.

This sequence, shot in one eight- or nine-minute take, is by any standards excruciating to watch. Is that a bad thing? It wasn’t fun at the time. It was torture. The film is filled with metaphorical images, with haunting dissolves, with strange and sudden moments of sadness, with impeccable and astonishing landscapes. I’m okay with art cinema, with the moving image as painting, with photography as poetry. But I am going to have work a hell of a lot harder on this sequence, which tested me beyond endurance. Youtube has it (apologies if it’s gone by the time you get here). Let me put you through its wringer:

On one level, Nostalghia is haunting (I certainly dreamed about it), and on another level it lingers so long that it makes you want to scream. I am trying hard not to be impressed by writers like Derek Malcolm who think it is the most astonishing film. Some of the shots of strange dark buildings are astonishing. Some of the symbolic elements (an Alsatian which keeps turning up) seem to me to be gratuitous and unfathomable. I also think that watching it on DVD may well have been a mistake. You probably need to be drenched in it in the company of arthouse aficionados.

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