Shot in Italy, Nostalghia was the first film that Andrei Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union after he sought refuge in Europe in 1985. Nostalghia is a rendering of the emotional half-life of displacement, nostalgia being the ineffable feeling born from loss of a place, personhood and national identity, as well as the universal pain of the loss of the past, hurtling continually into the eternal present. Tarkovsky wrote that nostalgia is “An illness that drains away the strength of the soul, the capacity to work, the pleasure of living.” Yet it has life-enriching qualities, offering those who experience it the chance to develop “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.”

Nostalghia’s protagonist is a Russian writer named Andrei Gorchakov, who travels to Italy to conduct research into 18th-century Russian composer Pavel Sosnovsky with his interpreter, Eugenia. There, he meets Domenico, who believes he will save the world if he is able to walk across a mineral pool while protecting the flame of a single candle he holds in his hands. Domenico is perhaps insane, perhaps a prophet; both he and Andrei are marked by a profound sense of alienation from their surroundings and a singular belief in the power of this strange ritual.

The film’s opening scene depicts a black-and-white landscape with the camera perched atop a hill. Three women in white skirts and black coats (or capes) walk downhill, observed by a white horse in the distance. Mist rolls across the frame. This is a misty film; it trails across the frame throughout, including sea mist rolling down the river and enveloping the heads of the bathers there. This may be a visual metaphor for the mists of time but also announcing the presence of a distinctly Tarkovskian moistness, a tremblingly wet film which revolves around the central image of the pool and the candle. Water and fire – which will feature in an immensely disturbing scene towards the film’s end – register the film’s sense of balance, and also speak to the development of film itself: light and liquid, the alchemical makeup of the moving image.

Tarkovsky developed a theory of cinema called “sculpting in time”, altering the viewer’s experience of time through cinematic manipulation. His films often feature long takes and few cuts, heightening the sense of time’s inexorable passing, as well as a deeply-felt sensorial apprehension of the world and its scale. Discussing the film in an interview, the director stated that “What always struck me most [about Italy] was the sky, your blue sky, black sky, with clouds, with the sun, at dawn, at noon, in the evening. The sky, a sky is always just that, but all it takes is a different hour of the day, the wind, a change in climate, for it to speak to you in a different way, with love, with violence, with longing, with fear. Cinema can give these ‘ways’ back to you, it must. With courage, and honesty, always starting from the real.” ◉

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