Frames of Reference

© Kino Lorber

I.

The title of the film, for which the word “nostalgia” is only a very insufficient translation, indicates a pining for what is far from us, for worlds that cannot be united. But it is also indicative of a longing for an inner home, some inner sense of belonging. Andrei Tarkovsky

“Thank God we’ve arrived.” The first words spoken in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia herald the end of a long journey. In this case, it is the presumably arduous trip that Russian writer Andrei Gorchakov has taken across Italy with his translator, Eugenia, to witness The Madonna of Childbirth, a fresco by Piero della Francesca. Andrei does not make the final walk to see the work of the artist. Standing next to the black car, huddled in the fog and dark hills, he mumbles (to whom? Eugenia? Italy? God?) “I am fed up with all your beauties. I don’t want to take it alone anymore. All this beauty of yours.”

Inside the church, Tarkovsky frames Eugenia between the pillars, reflective of the fresco she stands quietly before. Candles burn, dripping wax below the work, softly illuminating it. All around, supplicants kneel quietly, heads bowed. Eugenia’s heel-clicks on the stone echo around the chamber. The women have come to kneel before the altar and ask for children (or to be spared from motherhood). The sacristan asks Eugenia which she has come for. She answers that she is only here to look. The man replies that when casual onlookers are present “nothing happens.” He asks her to kneel, at least, in deference to the other visitors, looking for something more.

But Eugenia cannot bring herself to kneel. A procession marches in. Women hold candelabras. Their heels are quiet on the floor. They carry an effigy of the Virgin Mary—decked in flowers, robes flowing—on a sedan chair. Eugenia turns to leave.

“Wait,” says the sacristan. Then: a woman kneeling, praying. She opens the womb of Mary and sparrows burst out. Feathers fall in the candles and the melted wax.

Nostalghia is a film about waiting, about the long journey before the arrival. Each of its principle characters is displaced in some way. There is a disconnect in their lives. Eugenia stands alone in the chapel— a nonbeliever in a crowd of believers—and yet she sees the sign. Conversely, she must interpret for Andrei, must translate, yet she does not understand the man himself. She does not understand why he refuses to see the fresco after driving across half of Italy. She does not understand why he does not either rebut her advances, or make advances of his own. She is in pursuit of the actual, in the bottom of things, but realizes too late that Andrei is not.

In Andrei’s room at the inn, she calls him out. “You’re [only] interested in Madonnas.” But here she stands; a living, breathing woman. However, Andrei’s longing is not for her, though she is mixed in his visions. Her idealization, along with that of Andrei’s family, serves as a connector in the same way the fresco connects the supplicants to the Virgin. So it is fitting that during this confrontation between Andrei and Eugenia, Tarkovsky frames her in the window, emanating light, and in a dark-trimmed doorway, the white tile of the bathroom throwing Eugenia’s figure into relief, the round mirror behind her serving as a halo. Tarkovsky is making religious art, even as he attempts to unravel the function and power of the very same.

Tarkovsky’s films at times resemble paintings, or installation works, more than they do movies. Even as he utilizes common motifs of religious art, the atmosphere and ruin of Nostalghia is reminiscent of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich in that, through the decay and murk, they suggest a world separate from our own – a history, a culture, a civilization parallel to us that lies strangely vacant, barely populated, just outside our view. Paintings like The Abbey in the Oakwood, Riesengebirge Landscape with Rising Fog, and especially Eldena Ruin are all echoed (consciously or not) in the film. Tarkovsky meticulously creates these compositions, imbuing them with meaning that reaches far deeper than any knowledge that comes from plot. Unlike his imitators (Alejandro González Iñárritu comes to mind), these are not hollow gestures. Tarkovsky understands, even venerates, the images and motifs he works with. He handles them with care and empathy. They are not spaces to be filled on an art film bingo sheet, but rather delicate strands intrinsic to the construction of the tapestry. The plot is not the point, and often the construction of these images delays the narrative. Instead, these images serve as the exterior and interior worlds of the characters. These haunted landscapes—these dreamworlds—display what is outside the characters, yes, but also, more importantly, what is inside.

II.

Domenico is an old man. He shuffles through the streets and through the vacant building where he resides. Domenico was a scholar until he locked his family in their house for seven years to protect them from the end of the world; an end which never came. The police freed them and Domenico spent time in a mental institution. When it was shut down, he was left to shuffle through the world with his dog, Zoe. “You know I’m scared of being alone,” he whispers to her.

This is what is known of Domenico. Was he jealous, or crazy, or scared? Is he mad?

In the scene in which Domenico is introduced, he circles the pool as the bathers speculate on his sanity and faithfulness, spreading the town gossip and passing judgment. Domenico meets Eugenia and asks her for a cigarette, even though, he admits, he does not smoke. She lights it for him; it goes out. Of course, later in the film he does smoke, in quite a different sense. Later in the film, he will have trouble with a different lighter. And so the scene is less foreshadowing than it is prophesy. What to make of Domenico? One could think on nothing but that question and the film would offer many paths; how one views the visions and oracles of the film will largely depend on what one thinks of this enigmatic, broken man.

The generous view is the one Andrei takes. “He’s not mad. He has faith,” says Andrei. “We don’t know what madness is.” And just like that, he believes. For the mad faithful, he says, are “certainly much closer to the truth.” So he goes to Domenico’s house. Or, at least, the place where he lives: a decrepit ruin with water cascading in from the roof and trees growing through the windows. A broken home for a broken man. Or perhaps not. There is a beauty and a mystery to the place. When Andrei first enters, he opens two heavy wooden doors and the film fades to black and white. On the floor is a miniature of a valley— dotted with trees and fields, a river of tepid water winding through it— which rises up in hills toward the windowsill, up to the very edge, where it blends with the real hills that lie far outside the window, the sky pale grey behind them. It is a glimpse of another world, a better world. It is a sign of things to come.

Domenico administers communion to Andrei and gives him a commission: carry the lit candle across the mineral pool, the pool of St. Catherine. He cannot perform the act himself. People keep pulling him out of the pool, worried for his safety, and likely theirs. There is a deep anguish in Domenico. It is written across his face. He was selfish before, trying to save only his family, leaving the world to burn. But this time, “everyone must be saved. The whole world.” Andrei sets the candle down, and then takes it up again. The men walk out together and it is revealed that the dark ruin is Domenico’s own house, where he once confined his family.

In another sequence shot in black and white, Domenico and his family are pulled from the house. His son scrambles up and down the stairs. Domenico chases after him. A crowd stands in the street. And then, in color, a shot of the town from far away, a car retreating from the city. It is, quite literally, a City on a Hill. But now it has become vacant, overgrown. This, and the derelict churches, are images of the world as Domenico sees it – in ruin, in need of rescue.

His faith is in restoration, but he cannot make the world see what he sees. So he performs the offices and rites of the devout. “Love’s austere and lonely offices,” as the poet Robert Hayden called them; those necessary duties which go unnoticed and unknown. The tension between his devotion and the seeming madness, the abuse even, of locking up his family, lies at the heart of Domenico, threatening to undo him. He must translate his faith into the world—and as Tarkovsky renders it, this is not a painless experience, but one of loss and anxiety. It is a slow experience. Tarkovsky’s patient camera flows quietly through the dark world, the black corners, the empty rooms in which Domenico does not belong. He is incongruous with the world around him. He is out of place, longing to save everyone but himself. 

III.

I don’t wish to recount the plot of the film, which, in and of itself, means nothing. What interest is there in knowing that it deals with a Russian writer who comes to Italy to carry out research about a countryman of his, an artist about whom all traces were lost two centuries ago, and that he encounters an Italian professor and a blond translator? But I can try to explain what the film tries to say. It is the expression of an emotion, the one that is most deeply rooted in me, that I have never felt so strongly as when I left the Soviet Union. It is for this reason that I say that I could have filmed Nostalghia only in Italy. And we Russians, for us nostalghia is not a gentle and benevolent emotion, as it is for you Italians. For us it is a sort of deadly disease, a mortal illness, a profound compassion that binds us not so much with our own privation, our longing, our separation, but rather with the suffering of others, a passionate empathy. – Andrei Tarkovsky

“Poetry is untranslatable, like the whole of art,” says Andrei. It is impossible for us to truly understand one another.

Eugenia responds. If so, “how can we get to know each other?”

“By abolishing the frontiers . . . . Between states.”

In Nostalghia, the frontiers blur. Russian and Italian mix, yes, but the borders that truly keep the characters from understanding each other are not national ones, but spiritual ones—the borders between dream and reality, between the ideal and the actual. Andrei dwells less in the physical world of the film than he does in his metaphysical visions. His separation from home creates an obsessive, internal longing. But it is a confused longing where his wife and Eugenia and the Virgin become one and then separate; where his family and Domenico’s family become interchangeable; where his own identity is in question. Images repeat: angels, ruins, children, lace, water, home. Tarkovsky shoots these sequences in black and white, but the murkiness of the “real” world makes it more difficult to tell the difference between the two as the film progresses. These sequences appear more frequently and with less warning. Andrei wanders in these landscapes, seeking the remedy to his nostalghia—home—and slowly losing himself.

In one of his last dreams, Andrei wanders an alley strewn with debris. A wardrobe stands off to the side. He wonders in voiceover why he did it. He wonders why he locked his family away—only—he pulls open the door of the wardrobe—clothes are strewn across the pavement—the mirror on the door scans the space behind him—his arm appears, lengthens, then the front of his coat is visible—and then a face. He stares, wide-eyed, at Domenico, standing in the mirror, reflecting back at him.

The film is littered with mirrors, and is, itself, a mirror of a mirror: it is the first film Andrei Tarkovsky made outside of his home in Russia—a self-exile; the film is about a man named Andrei who himself is far from his home in Russia—another self-exile; this Andrei is writing about a Russian composer who, long ago, fled Russia for Italy—yet another self-exile. Andrei begins to meld into Domenico, a man exiled from the eternal world. This mise-en-âbyme fractures the narrative. But instead of destabilizing it to the point of nonsense, Tarkovsky’s steady hand guides the reflection of the reflection so that it might examine itself.

“I don’t understand ‘faith.’ What is it? . . . . What does ‘faith’ mean?” Andrei asks these questions of Eugenia as a matter of translation—he simply does not understand the Italian word for faith. It is an offhand remark, a clarification. But in the construction of the film, this benign line of dialogue lays bare the core questions to which the film seeks an answer: What does faith mean? Faith to your spouse; faith in your homeland; faith in art; faith in God?

St. Augustine wrote, “do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.” Nostalghia does not offer understanding in the rational sense, but rather in the empathic one. In the end, we are left, not with a discourse on the nature of faith, but with two radical acts of belief.

Domenico lights himself on fire in a public square in Rome. Self-immolation has a long history—as a form of protest and as a sign of religious devotion. It is a shocking and willful act of self-harm. It is for those who cannot stand the state of things. Domenico shouts from his makeshift pulpit that he “can’t live simultaneously in [his] head and in [his] body.” He cannot be “just one person.” He asks, “where am I when I’m not in reality or in my imagination?” The frontiers between the states must be abolished, the gates opened. There must be a “new pact with the world; it must be sunny at night and snowy in August. Great things end, small things endure.” Domenico implores the crowd: “we must go back to where we were, to the point where you took the wrong turn.” This final act calls back to a story Eugenia tells Andrei in the beginning of the film about a maid who missed home so much that she set fire to her master’s house. “She burned the thing that stopped her going back.” For Domenico, the thing that stops him from going home is his body. And so he burns it. His end is violent and loud, he screams and writhes on the ground as his body is engulfed. A great thing ends.

Consider this in contrast with Andrei, who returns to the pool to complete his commission. Once he stops searching for signs, for understanding, he can begin to believe. His devotion is true, but he finds the pool empty. He climbs down and flicks the lighter in unison with Domenico far away in Rome. Andrei lights the candle, a small thing. Across minutes that feel like hours, Tarkovsky shoots Andrei’s slow, tired shuffling across the bottom of the pool. The flame goes out. He returns to the beginning. The flame goes out again. He cups the flame. He returns over and over in a shot that continues to be held, afraid of missing the crucial moment. But then— Andrei lets wax drip on the far edge, he fashions a resting place for the flame. His hands drop. His body hits the ground. The flame endures.

Suddenly, a cut to a boy’s face in black and white, his mother’s hands on his shoulders. Another cut: Andrei reclines in front of his house, by the pond. Zoe is next to him. Telephone lines stretch back behind the house, over the hills, and toward the woods. The shot pulls back. There are arches reflected in the mirror of the pond. There are columns to the left and right. Further back, behind the woods arches rise up toward an empty rose window. The house shrinks. The church rises up all around. Andrei and the dog grow. Snow falls on the diorama—or is it ash?

These acts of faith are acts of art as well. They are attempts to translate the otherworld, the inner home, into this failed state, to abolish the frontiers that separate the two—to reconcile the here and now with the ideal past and future. To save the whole world. It is no wonder that the result, for these men, is death. The language of the eternal, rendered in the tongue of the finite, requires a passionate empathy that inevitably consumes the messenger, whether it be through the slow process of time, the flick of a lighter, or the bursting of a heart. In the confines of our world, this passion is rendered as farce: the music skips while Domenico burns; the candle goes out on the walk across the pool, a seemingly slow and easy walk which, nevertheless, proves too much for Andrei’s heart to bear.

But there is comfort, too. And as it was spoken to the mystic, Julian of Norwich—that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”—so the final vision of Nostalghia promises something more. That is, that what we see is not always true. That our perspective, like that of the camera itself, is forced, limited by the scope of our vision, and that faith and art are influences that expand us, that widen the shot, pulling back to reveal our miniature world, surrounded by our larger, older, much-longed-for home, and that our world, the small world, is no less real for this, but more so, having been put, at last, in its proper context, where the finite world can be properly translated and, hopefully, understood.