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Nostalghia | Blu-ray Review

Andrei Tarkovsky Nostalghia blu-ray reviewOf his seven feature length films, it’s hard to pinpoint which serves as the best entry into the visual poetry of Andrei Tarkovsky, arguably one of the cinema’s authorial titans of the past century. That said, his 1983 feature, Nostalghia, which was his first to be filmed outside the confines of the Soviet Union, may not be the wisest choice for the unprepared, but it’s certainly an unparalleled viewing experience. Though comprehending it’s somewhat impenetrable meaning feels akin to looking through a glass darkly, our earthly interpretations somehow seeming rudimentary when crafted into mere synopsis.

A Russian poet, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) has been living in Italy for the past two years, separated from wife and children back home as he researches the life of an 18th century Russian composer named Pavel Sosnovsky, a man that left Russia to live in Italy, only to return to his homeland and hang himself. We meet him while he’s in the company of his beautiful interpreter, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordono) as they travel to a convent in the Tuscan countryside in order to see frescoes by Piero della Francesca, in particular, one of the Madonna and child. But once they arrive, Andrei refuses to enter, leaving Eugenia to engage in discussions about the differences between men and women in their devotion to faith with the priest. We soon realize that Eugenia is rather smitten with Andrei, upset by the fact that he won’t sleep with her and she threatens to go back to a another boyfriend, but it’s clear that Andrei, who is continually lost in memories and fantasies pertaining to his homeland, is no longer engaged by matters of the profane. Instead, Andrei becomes fascinated with Domenico (Erland Josephson), a wandering madman that had been institutionalized, but left to roam free after all such institutions were closed by the state. We learn that Domenico had locked his family in his home for seven years in fear of the apocalypse, and is now notorious in his village for his continual efforts to cross a mineral spring with a lit candle, which he believes would save the world if he were able to accomplish it.

Nostalghia is a haunted house of memories and mood, and its quiet hum of dense sequences will lodge into your subconscious, returning unexpectedly and perhaps even more viscerally than a handful of more explicit sequences where Tarkovsky blasts pieces of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, in one instance involving self-immolation. This is not an earthbound film, uninterested in plot, characterization or narrative structure. Instead, we seem to be tapping into Gorchakov (and, therefore, Tarkovsky’s) spiritual continuum. From the onset, where Eugenia discusses faith and devotion with the priest and she is advised that for casual onlookers, there is little the church has to offer. But those willing to immerse themselves, for those willing to see, the church has everything to offer. Such is the case with Nostalghia, for as Tarkovsky professes, this is a film that examines “the love for your homeland and the melancholy that arises from being far away.” In an early sequence, we watch Gorchakov as he falls asleep, imaging his wife back home as she is transfigured as the Madonna. You’d be hard pressed to recall a sequence that conveys the exact mood and feeling of wavering between waking and sleeping, when conscious and subconscious have a moment to converse, better than this.

Tarkovsky’s females rarely get a chance to employ any type of control or agency and Giordono’s Eugenia is hardly an exception, though she seems to have the upper hand in that her ability as an interpreter is a sort of power over Andrei. Here, she’s portrayed early on as a modern woman, without an understanding of faith, and, therefore, out of sync with her own ability for motherhood, which is insinuated what makes women more devoted to God than men. Once the madman Domenico is introduced, he informs her that “You are she who is not, and I am he who is.” The continual frames of circular objects, such as mirrors, continually framed within rectangular doorframes seem to indicate that woman, a symbol of life’s continuity, is boxed in here. And, then, Eugenia gets her requisite freak-out, and while she isn’t writhing on the floor like several other Tarkovsky women, she’s a bare breasted devil, consumed with desire, a temptation for the married man who likens his own wife to a Madonna figure.

Disc Review

Kino Lorber’s newly mastered HD blu-ray is certainly a worthy transfer, but for such a complicated masterpiece, one expects a certain amount of prestigious extra features, of which there are nearly none here, beyond an original theatrical trailer. Informative, critical essays would have been a welcome aside, or at least some kind of documentary about the enigmatic Tarkovsky, who would only make one final feature after this. His relationship with the Soviet government saw Tarkovsky accusing the entity of pressuring the Cannes Film Festival jury (led by author William Styron in 1983) out of awarding his film the Palme d’Or (instead, the film went to Shohei Imamura’s remake of The Ballad of Narayama, while Tarkovsky was awarded Best Director), and rumors surrounding his defection and death would have made for scintillating accompaniment as an extra feature.

Final Thoughts

As inexplicable as Nostalghia seems to be, its glory, as with many of Tarkovsky’s titles, is located in its possible implications and varied interpretations that imbue the film with inspiration and excitement, unspooling as a veritable feast of visual poetry. Packed with scenes of sumptuous artistry, the final sequences of Gorchakov and his dog in front of his home as the camera zooms out to reveal their placement within the ruins of an Italian church has to be one of cinema’s most indelible and fascinating images. As the title indicates, Nostalghia is a place of mind rather than a film, a thing of everlasting beauty.

Film Rating: ★★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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