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Most films aim for efficient entertainment, they get you in, get you out and it's done. You won't get anything like that with Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia (1983) which critic J. Hoberman once described as "not so much a movie as a place to inhabit for two hours." Lushly beautiful and haunting, Nostalghia is also a challenging, thought-provoking work. Movie critic Leonard Maltin called it a "provocative, insightful epic, lovingly rendered by one of the cinema's true poets."
Tarkovsky's film follows the musicologist Gortchakov (played by Oleg Yankovsky from The Mirror, 1975) during a research trip to Italy where the composer he's studying lived for several years. Gortchakov is apparently oblivious to his beautiful translator and the wonders of Italy, instead dwelling on memories of Russia. Things start to change when he encounters Domenico (Bergman veteran Erland Josephson), a somewhat unstable man who has kept his family locked up for seven years while waiting the end of the world. Domenico has now decided that rather than wait he should do something about the end and he's decided Gortchakov should help.
Nostalghia can trace its beginnings back to early 1976 when Tarkovsky started working with Italian screenwriter and long-time friend Tonino Guerra (a frequent Antonioni collaborator) on a project called Journey Through Italy for Italian television. Though a script was written, Tarkovsky was sidetracked for a few years by work on Stalker (1979) and a stage adaptation of Hamlet. In the summer of 1979, he briefly considered an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot before picking up the Italian project again. It was now called Nostalghia (the word refers to a particular Russian feeling when "far from their native land") and Tarkovsky spent weeks in the Italian country with Guerra working on notes and ideas. This resulted in Tarkovsky's only documentary, an hour-long compilation of the journey called Time of Travel. Shortly after Tarkovsky returned to Russia, his mother died (Nostalghia is dedicated to her). You can also see quotations from his father's poems in one scene. That's apparently when the director started thinking seriously about leaving his home country.
In the middle of 1980, Tarkovsky was back in Italy, again working with Guerra. By now the script included elements from their earlier trip along with references to Russian literature and music. The composer in the film is modeled after 18th century composer Maximilian Berezovsky, the first Russian to compose Italian-style opera and whose suicide already inspired several plays and novels. Nostalghia was to be a co-production between Italy and Russia which created problems Tarkovsky hadn't encountered before, namely, the friction between the commercial-minded Italian company (who kept trimming the budget and demanding final cut privileges) and the bureaucratic Russian film studio (who claimed to "lose" messages from the Italians).
The main character of Gortchakov was originally intended for Anatoli Solonitsyn (who'd played the lead role in Andrei Rublev, 1969) but he was seriously ill and eventually died in June 1982. The role was offered to another Tarkovsky veteran, Aleksandr Kajdanovsky (Stalker), but when he wasn't given permission to leave the country it finally went to Oleg Yankovsky. In the spring of 1982, Tarkovsky finalized the other actors and scouted locations in Italy. Filming finally started in the fall when Tarkovsky discovered that the leisurely way he worked in Russia wasn't possible in Italy. He couldn't, for instance, take his time watching daily rushes, re-filming parts or suspending shooting while he pondered the direction of the film. He also had to work through an interpreter since he knew very little Italian and there was only one other Russian actor. Still, Tarkovsky later claimed that Nostalghia represented his interior thoughts better than any of his other films, partly due to the sheer concentration required by the challenging work environment. A few scenes were scheduled to be shot in Russia but Tarkovsky decided to do those scenes in Italy since he didn't think he would be allowed to leave Russia if he went back; in fact he never returned to Russia. (His wife joined him during the filming of Nostalghia but his son stayed in Russia.)
Nostalghia showed at Cannes where Tarkovsky later claimed that the Russian authorities had pulled strings to prevent him from getting the Grand Prix. Still, he was awarded Best Director (tied with Robert Bresson for L'Argent), the International Critics Award and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury so he did have some success. Also at Cannes, Tarkovsky signed a contract with the Swedish Film Institute to make a film called The Witch (later titled The Sacrifice, 1986) that would turn out to be his last feature.
Producer: Franco Casati
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay: Tonino Guerra, Andrei Tarkovsky
Cinematography: Giuseppe Lanci
Costume Design: Lina Nerli Taviani
Film Editing: Amedeo Salfa, Erminia Marani
Original Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
Principal Cast: Oleg Yankovsky (Andrei Gortchakov), Domiziana Giordano (Eugenia), Erland Josephson (Domenico), Patrizia Terreno (Gortchakov's wife), Laura De Marchi (Chambermaid).
by Lang Thompson