Okay film folks, it's time to take the Solaris test. Show of hands - how many of you out there believe that Andrei Tarkovsky's sci-fi fable is the equal to, or the better of, Stanley Kubrick's considered classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey? Keep those mitts up. Really? All right. Now, how many think said Russian allegory is nothing more than an overly ambitious pile of cinematic claptrap that's too damn long and Hella-boring? Hands up again? Wow. Okay. Now, the point of this little exercise is to illustrate how one should approach the filmmaker's first movie made outside the USSR, the tantalizing tone poem Nostalghia. While obviously not on the level of Tarkovsky's other efforts like Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Rublev, or the aforementioned journey into inner/outer space, if you love Solaris and find it the aesthetic equal to Kubrick's solemn shape of things to come, you will be more than happy with this long, languid lament. If, on the other hand, you prefer Steven Soderbergh's take on the material, or a movie that's not in love with its own visual and narrative inertia, you should perhaps steer clear. Tarkovsky can be a bit of an acquired taste, like anchovies on an otherwise ordinary pizza. Luckily, yours truly loves those little fishes.
The main storyline here centers on a poet named Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) who is traveling to Italy to do research into the life of 18th-century Russian composer Pavel Sosnovsky. After spending time in the Mediterranean mainstay, said traveler returned home to the USSR and committed suicide. Andrei is joined by a young woman named Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) who functions as translator and guide. While in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, he meets up with a lunatic named Domenico (Erland Josephson) who believes the world is about to end. In fact, he was institutionalized until recently and has a history of holding his family hostage for nearly seven years in an effort to keep them away from the reality of these "End Days." While Eugenia flirts and badmouths her boyfriend, Andrei grows more and more melancholy. He misses Russia and is desperate to return. When Domenico takes his prophesying to even more psychotic levels, our hero tries to match his mission, attempting to walk across as drained mineral spring with a lit candle. Supposedly, this act will save the world.
At two hours and five minutes, Nostalghia is an easy movie to get lost in. Because of his notoriously deliberate pacing and obvious desire to tell his story in the most basic and organic way possible, Tarkovsky simply lets things play out. A sequence involving a series of painted frescos will go on until the director is convinced the audience has seen everything they need to, a conversation from the crackpot Domenico will continue well past the point of purpose. Instead, Tarkovsky seems to want to mimic everyday life within the hyper-stylized world of cinema. One imagines that, if he could, he would let a 45 minutes discussion play out onscreen...over 45 actual minutes. With its use of classic music and the gorgeous Tuscan countryside as a backdrop, one is easily intoxicated by the ambience he creates. But in 2014, there are more than a few audience members who want something more than beautiful vistas to look at and recognizable compositions to listen to...and the story here is very sparse. Tarkovsky has said that the title reflects his overall theme, a longing for home and the disassociation of being so far from it. On the other hand, Nostalghia is also a reflection of its time, a look back to when arthouse films took the first part of that genre delineation seriously.
Overtly, the film plays out like a tour of a moving museum. The almost love story between Andrei and Eugenia goes almost nowhere and we sense that Domenico will end up doing something beyond foolish. Like any walk through great art, however, we feel a certain connection to our inner life. This is the kind of movie that manipulates the soul, that suggests spirituality in all the things it doesn't do. Granted, Tarkovsky is best known for being this kind of artist, but the emotions seem heightened here, almost accentuated by the filmmakers lack of haste. Of course, insularity breeds same, and so we feel left out of the philosophical debates which try to argue that "1+1=1," not "1+1=2." Similarly, the final shot plays out for nearly 10 minutes, once again illustrating that Tarkovsky only cares about what Tarkovsky cares about. The audience may eventually get his point, but as a filmmaker, that's the very least of his concerns. Getting his vision on the screen in much more important, and in the case of Nostalghia, Andrei Tarkovsky achieves this aim.