Nostalghia (1983)

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” 

Matthew 7:13 

The poet stands at the end of a street. Having walked through it amidst papers discarded on the ground, he now turns back to gaze upon it. He looks once, and, as if unable to control himself, turns again and takes a second — this time longer — look. He slowly moves aside and opens a door, only to find a much older and shattered image of himself in the mirror on the door. 

This scene, appearing in poet Andrei Gorchakov’s dream, is one of many in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia that characterize his solo journey and deep torment. Initially travelling to Italy to research the life and work of 18th-century Russian composer Pavel Sosnovsky, Gorchakov eventually begins to seek home and identity through language and poetry. However, the image of home, like the view at the end of the street or the distortion in the mirror, remains shattered and afar. Gorchakov’s journey to find the Russian soul is also Tarkovsky’s own retrospection, recalling a Russia that he was born and raised in but now has been driven out of for political reasons. The poetics of Nostalghia are a poetics of returning and memories that resonate deeply with Tarkovsky, who was also exiled from his home. Tarkovsky uses symbolic visual elements and cinematic techniques to construct a motherland and to create distance as well as barriers, so that movement — essential for returning — becomes impossible and can only appear in dreams. 

Motherland, as its name suggests, is maternal, deeply bonded to us by generations of blood ties, thus visceral and with a feminine tenderness. Tarkovsky constructs this viscerality through a series of maternal images from the film’s outset. In a church, devout women are praying. A Madonna del Parto — the icon that portrays Virgin Mary pregnant — is displayed. Tarkovsky’s long take gradually zooms in on and intensifies Mary’s peaceful face, forcing the audience to meditate on the forces of creation and fertility. In a later scene, milk gurgles and flows beside a woman that prostrates on the ground. The running milk, the only movement in the scene, is highlighted by the stark bright-and-dark contrast between it and the black soil. This contrast breaks all the silence in the scene and we can almost hear the sound of it running around.. It is the fluids — blood and milk — that tie us to the ground that feeds us. What we regard as our mother. These maternal images, just like the maternal relationship itself, are physical and visceral. 

Nostalgia arises from our innate desire for and separation from this maternity. The word nostalgia, coined from the Ancient Greek word νοσταλγία, is made up of these two layers of meanings, one following the other: νόστος, or, returning home, and ἄλγος, or, pain. Pain, appearing as intensified sickness and even madness in the film, arises from the conflict between a consistent longing to return and its impossibility. Returning is made impossible by more than the mere temporal and geographical distance; it is also made impossible by a conceptual distance — a drift away from the corporality that both defines the existence of our maternal home and connects us with it. 

This drift happens quietly, even unconsciously. Barriers seep into our language, our ideas, making them so obscure and abstract that the image of motherland, as if blurred in the mist, is hard to outline. Tarkovsky hints at this drift first through the inability to translate art. Gorchakov, finding translations unreliable, tells his translator Eugenia to throw a translated poem of Arseny Tarkovsky — Andrei Tarkovsky’s father — away, as “poetry is untranslatable, like the whole of art.” The creations of Gorchakov, Sosnovsky, and Tarkovsky himself — poems, music and film — are all impossible to translate. It is only by being proficient in and having close access to a certain language, a melancholy language that lies closest to the artist and his origin, is a full comprehension — homecoming through art — possible.

Art is conceptual and personal, and understanding art—or, understanding its underlying humanity — is impossible from an outsider’s point of view. The only solution, says Gorchakov, is “abolishing the frontiers,” yet dissolving these barriers is never easy, and nostalgia is reinforced by the immense difficulties in doing so and the futility of trying to lie closer to motherlands. These struggles are seen from Eugenia and the poet’s discordance, as, even though Eugenia is proficient in many languages, it is still difficult for her to understand the poet, and a quarrel breaks out not long after. The same difficulty is more explicitly shown when Gorchakov first visits Domenico, a mad man who believes that only someone who can cross a mineral pool with a lit candle can save the world. Domenico is riding a bicycle that has been fixed on the ground, so, despite Domenico’s movements, the bicycle does not move. The coexistence of elements that represent movement and stillness is also seen from the constant presence of doors and windows in Domenico’s home and his families’ 7-year-long prison, which they are unable to break out of. These juxtapositions, seemingly ironic, all contribute to a sense of insurmountable distance and the futility of human endeavors to bridge it. 

The impossibility of returning — geographical or temporal — that these images collectively present seems Freudian, just like the impossibility of a child approaching or possessing his mother. There is more, however, that the Oedipus complex and ties of blood cannot grasp: when all efforts of homecoming are futile, motherland becomes a spiritual belonging, a more profound faith that manifests itself in dreams and an ardent and rabid madness. Both Domenico and Gorchakov are clinging to their faith as a means of salvation and returning in a world that they have been alienated from. Now, it is no longer a tangible motherland they seek but a broader and more universal one, one that houses not only themselves but also other human beings — their brethren — as well. In the climax of intertwined conviction and madness, Domenico immolates himself after delivering a speech in public on the need for mankind to truly understand each other. Gorchakov, on the other hand, finally crosses the mineral pool with a lit candle in hand. Tarkovsky’s close up on the candle draws the audience in, forcing them to look at the flickering fire, while the long take builds anticipation, as we, like those watching the poet from across the pool, eagerly await him to complete the journey.

Gorchakov places the candle at the end of the pool

Gorchakov places the candle at the end of the pool

He succeeds, only to collapse at the end from a heart attack. The movement is futile in reality. The motherland that has already been lost, and the longing that is never satisfied can only be realized in dreams, where melancholy unfolds itself in black-and-white. As in the beginning of the film, Russian folk songs and Verdi’s Requiem echo in the spacious valley and the poet finally returns home, sitting with his dog in front of his house. Like a candle that has wasted away or a feather that lingers and finally falls, motherland, a salvation that’s never Homeric but deeply personal, finally presents itself in dreams and poems that keep echoing, the final solace of wanderers. 

 

As a child I once fell ill
With hunger and fear. Off my lips I peeled 

Hard scales, and licked my lips. 1 remember
Still the taste of it, saltish and cool.
And all the time I walked and walked and walked. 

Sat down on the front stairs to warm myself,

 Walked my lightheaded way as if dancing
To the rat-catcher’s tune, riverwards. Sat down
To warm on the stairs, shivering every which way. 

And mother stands there beckoning, looks as if 

She’s close, but I can’t go up to her:
I move towards her, she stands seven steps away, 

Beckons me; I move towards her, she stands 

Seven steps away and beckons me.

 

I felt too hot, 

Undid my collar button and lay down,
Then there were trumpets blaring, light beating 

Down on my eyelids, horses galloping, mother 

Was flying above the roadway, beckoned me 

And flew away . . . 

 

And now my dream is of
A hospital, white beneath the apple trees, 

And a white sheet beneath my chin, 

And a white doctor looking down at me,

And a white nurse standing at my feet

And her wings moving. And there they stayed. And mother came, and beckoned me—

And flew away . . .

 

[by Arseny Tarkovsky, appearing in Nostalghia

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