A few years ago, a lit-mag editor treated me and other dinner guests to the story—almost certainly apocryphal—of another lit-mag editor who had read, in just one day, two separate poems, submitted by two separate poets, each describing some desperate swimmer crossing some storm-tossed channel with a lit candle held just above the water. That candle mustn’t go out, of course, or something profound—hope, poetry, Lady Di/Marilyn Monroe—would die with it.
The usual slush-pile rejection notes would seem inadequate in a case like this. So how should that editor—surely hypothetical—have responded to the dueling iterations of that simple, somewhat vainglorious metaphor? By mailing each poet the other’s work, perhaps—and by demanding each immediately find a way to view Nostalghia, the late masterpiece from Andrei Tarkovsky, by 1983 himself a guttering presence far removed from his element.
Sick of being harried by the censors in his native Soviet Union, Tarkovsky had come to Italy for freedom and financing—and, after this film, he never again returned home. Nostalghia is steeped in some of the stiffest ennui of Tarkovsky’s career, even as he conjures images of surpassing beauty.
Set in the ruins of a great civilization, the film presents Oleg Yankovsky as the heartsick writer Gorchakov, another Soviet exile trying to craft meaning from a life removed from his homeland. Researching a Russian composer, yet another artist alienated from the country of his birth, Gorchakov tours a hot spring and a Tuscan convent, meets a troubled street philosopher, and never gets around to seducing his bombshell interpreter (Domiziana Giordano), who comes to resent this oversight.
Not much happens, and everything does, all in Tarkovsky’s stately, long-take style, where each shot gives the shadows time to spread and deepen. You know when you’re a few minutes early to meet someone, and you don’t have a phone or magazine to fuss with, and you for once take in the world around you through what’s left of your animal senses? That’s what Tarkovsky forces from us, again and again.
There are visions, memories, riddles, curious encounters, and a slow crescendo of spiritual longing. There’s much sublimity and—possibly, depending on how comfortable you are leaving the house without your phone—some boredom. (I heard some snoring a recent press screening of BAM’s sharp new 35mm print.)
But stick with it. There are shocking acts that rupture the stillness, and then there’s one of cinema’s great endings, a wrenching, rapturous scene that would set both of those poets into embarrassed rewrites. If the pleasures of a great work of art can be “spoiled,” I’m about to do so: In the final moments, Gorchakov, inspired by the madness of that philosopher he met, attempts to cross from one side of a dried-up pool to another—without his lit candle going out. In one long shot, he lights the candle, shuffles out into stones and puddles, shielding the flame from the wind. That wind perseveres, though, and snuffs the candle. Then, it all happens again. Hungry for meaning, Gorchakov keeps trying, even as his body begins to break down. Will he die? Will he make it? Why is he bothering? And why does it stir so deeply?