Every so often I will encounter an artist, a book, a poem, or a film that is attacked by idiotic opinions, even when those opinions are mostly in defense of said artist or art work, and the reason for this is the noxious notion of critical cribbing, wherein a critic does not fully engage an art work, and decides to simply repeat what other critics have claimed without really checking out the claim (and often without really, or totally, engaging the art).
Such is the case with Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, 1983’s Nostalghia, a 125 minute film. It’s a very good to excellent (possibly near-great) film that misses out on greatness for a few reasons, but, seeing it, fills in a blank in his canon. Of the five films of his I’ve seen, they are his final five fictive films: Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker, this film, and The Sacrifice. And they are almost in a perfect rise and fall pattern- perhaps the earlier films lead up in such a perfect fashion, as well? Solaris is, after 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably the greatest science fiction film of all time. The Mirror is one of the all time great cinema works. Stalker has great moments, and is a genre great in science fiction, while Nostalghia has great moments and many moments of mere solid to good scenes. The Sacrifice is the least of these five films, by a wide margin, but it is in tune with Nostalghia in that its power and great moments are less, and its least moments are worse.
The film opens with a credit sequence in black and white, that we later learn is a memory of the Russian writer Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), who, in the present (and color) has driven across Italy with a beautiful red haired assistant and translator, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), and arrived at a fogged in hamlet to study the life and death of an 18th Century Russian composer, Pavel Sosnovsky, who committed suicide after a sojourn there. But, subversion abounds, and as the film goes on the color and black and white segments intermingle to the point that reality, dream, and memory bleed into each other.
At the hamlet, Eugenia enters a church, while Andrei refuses to enter, even though he wanted to sojourn there to see a painting, Madonna Of Childbirth, by Piero Della Francesca. A scene that defies explanation occurs when Eugenia opens garments on what seems to be a display- birds erupt out by the hundreds and Eugenia is agog. Later, at their hotel, it is clear Eugenia is dismayed that she has not been able to lure Andrei into her bed. But he is clearly depressed, or in some sort of funk. They meet the town idiot, Domenico (Erland Josephson), who has been called a drunk or madmen, but he’s neither. He’s a coy old codger who makes a fool of Andrei by first spurning him, then coercing him. The initial spurn turns Eugenia against Andrei, for he seems more fixated on appeasing the idiot than engaging in mattress tag with the comely Eugenia- to the point of making her supplicate to Domenico, as he is on a stationary on bike. She, however, is often expectedly framed inside doorways (trapped and limited), but, in one great scene, rails against what a fool Andrei is for not only resisting her, but not even seeming to be tempted. The fact that Eugenia is in a small undergarment, showing off luscious legs and a beautiful left breast as she berates Andrei, only makes her claims the more stinging against her stolid would be lover.
Josephson as the idiot is underused and poorly used. The reasons for why Andrei are drawn to this clearly idiotic man are never spelt out nor hinted at. Yes, there’s the ‘art is madness’ cliché, but we soon find out that Domenico is not crazy, but a political activist, in a scene where Eugenia calls Andrei from Rome, to brag that she’s found a better man- a man 30 years her senior, at least, and one with money- hence begging another cliché, albeit one that is passable, since it’s clear Eugenia is not in her right mind nor mood, either. The expressions on her face, as she speaks to Andrei, on the phone, as she looks at her older lover, tells us she’s dooming herself, as he clearly views her as an adornment he barely notices as he conducts shady business deals.
The hamlet, which seems perma-swathed in fog, sees Domenico playing his act, by trying to cross through the waters of a mineral pool with a lit candle. No real reason is given, save that Domenico claims the cosmos will be right if he does. This is supposedly the thing that hooks Andrei, but the why is missing. Yes, we can believe he is not all there, but nothing in the film makes him so fascinating as to sustain our interest in him to allow us to grant him this dip into the shallow end of reason- even a few of the dreams he has are rather inoffensive. Domenico spins tales of being imprisoned by the Fascists, then spending time in an asylum, and imprisoning his family, but these all seem to be part of his elaborate con- to ends we never get to see nor learn. In a few scenes we see the two men in Domenico’s cellar, flooded with water, in an almost direct quotation and shout out to the far superior Federico Fellini film, La Dolce Vita, but the dance between the men in this film is nothing compared to the intellectual and sexual waltz the Fellini film offers. When Domenico leaves for Rome he urges Andrei to complete his task of crossing the pool with the candle. When Eugenia calls she says Domenico asked her to see if he had done his task. Andrei lies and claims he did.
Eugenia then sees Domenico in a Roman square, standing on a statue of a horse and rider, blathering on incoherent and silly political apothegms. He then sets himself on fire with gasoline, as the music (Beethoven’s Ode To Joy) he was to have coordinated his suicide with fails. Andrei, in the hamlet, returns to the pool and completes the candle task. He fails several times, then succeeds, and then we see his hand withdraw from the candle, and hear a grunt. We do not see what happens to him, nor his body, and this is done for the very reason of allowing each viewer to interpret the ending as they will. Yet, this is where many critics start cribbing each other. Most claim Andrei dies- flat out, because we then see him, amongst ruins, staring at a withdrawing camera, as a small version of his wife’s and his dream house fades behind him. His pet dog sits with him, and as the camera pulls back we see snow fall, on and off, and the film being dedicated to Tarkovsky’s mother (his father’s tribute came in the form of a mention of his father- Arseni’s, poetry).
Put simply, this is balderdash. There is ZERO on or offscreen evidence that Andrei dies. He may have stroked, or passed out or lost his breath. The end image is far more that of a dream- a recycling of images and memories we earlier saw, put in a different context, not a death vision. This utter misconstrual of the end remind me most of a similar claim of the titular donkey’s death in Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Balthazar, where the final shot is not of the dead donkey, but a likely dying donkey. In both films, these are not semantic claims, because whether or not the donkey is dead or dying, or whether or not Andrei dies or just passes out into dream, have major implications for what the films convey.
Of course, this is just the most egregious of many critical flaws typical in reviews of this film.
In this review’s opening lines, the critic shows he fundamentally does not understand art at any level:
The more one watches Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, the more one comes to an unmistakable conclusion: the Russian filmmaker never made a film that he didn’t appear to have some personal connection to, from his student film “The Steamroller and the Violin” to his 1986 farewell “The Sacrifice.” The only exception to that MIGHT be his 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris,” but even then you can’t help but think that the reasons he chose the story were likely due to an emotional connection to the ideas contained within.
Now, every work of art has a connection to the artist in some way. What the critic meant was he believed the art was personally connected to Tarkovsky’s intimate life- a cliché that is most obvious with filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Woody Allen, which is nonsense, for there are many ways to be connected to art that is not.
However, in a negative sense, this film is typical Tarkovsky, with its long, lush takes, rich symbolism, and metaphysical conceits. While the critic digs himself a hole at the start of his critique, he almost makes up for it by being one of the few critics to NOT accept that the film ends with Andrei’s death:
The spiritual fulfillment of man is ultimately Tarkovsky’s only subject in all of his films. When our spirit is renewed we can accomplish more than we ever imagined; when our spirit is empty, when we lose the belief that our actions have no meaning, there’s nothing left for us but madness, and death. No other filmmaker has found so simple a way of expressing so complex an idea. Does the poet make it across the pool with the candle lit? Yes. What is accomplished by doing so? That’s for each of us to know for ourselves.
But, typical of the critical cribbing that especially dogs deeper film directors like Tarkovsky is this off the rack review from Slant magazine:
When Gorchakov visits Domenico in his home, a bombed-out looking space with a ceiling that lets rain in and the illogical equation "1 + 1 = 1" scrawled on the wall, Domenico takes a bottle of olive oil, pours two drops in his hand, and says, "One drop plus one drop makes a bigger drop, not two." What Tarkovsky and Guerra, who has used a similar message in his script for Red Desert, are saying is that Gorchakov and Domenico are two sides of the same coin: The artist and the madman understand each other because they are part of the same person. Because of how abstract Nostalghia is, this is merely one of many allegorical aspects of a film that leaves itself open for interpretation.
Note how the critic makes the tritest possible connection? Yes, Andrei connects with Domenico, but we see nothing that makes us feel he’s even remotely a good poet. And we know Domenico is hardly crazy- he’s got a martyr complex, but crazy? And then the critic undercuts his very triteness by hedging his claim.
That said, as in all Tarkovsky projects I’ve seen, the technical aspects are superb. Giuseppe Lanci’s cinematography often adds a visual resonance to scenes that, as scripted, would have fallen flat, and this is much to his credit because the bulk of the film’s claims to greatness fall on its camera work, not the screenplay penned by Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra. The film does make good use of silences, and when music does come into play, it is used effectively-credit to Tarkovsky and Gino Peguri for this. The film also flows naturally between the Italian and Russian languages, with easily readable golden subtitles. If a foreign film is going to lack a good dubbed soundtrack, at least readable subtitles should be appended- a thing too often neglected.
Nostalghia is certainly a film well above almost all the junk Hollywood, and even most current world cinema, proffers today, but, compared to the three films that directly preceded it, once senses the declension immanent in this film. It’s a very good film, and arguably, possibly, maybe, just climbs above the bar of near-greatness, but great it is not. Unlike Solaris and The Mirror, it lacks an organic flow from scene to scene. The themes and messages, great and small, seem more bumper stickery than emergent from a cohesive whole. In short, the film lacks vision. It has good, even great, 5-8 minute segments, but then it sputters, falls flaccid, and takes another five minutes to get to a scene that can be argued as great, again. Great visuals carry the film when it fails all interest, yet its often manifest morality plays evince the worst in its own chronic self-indulgences, rather than evoking what would occur in real life- the very essence of being inorganic. That the film, nonetheless flows so well, despite these obvious flaws, bespeaks Tarkovsky’s technical acumen and mastery as a visual filmmaker almost wholly negating the sizable flaws evident in the script proffered by Tarkovsky (and Guerra) the screenwriter. But it’s in the almost wholly where the film ultimately falls short. Quite an irony for a film whose soul points to Rome.