Monday, November 14, 2005

Film: Nostalghia

D you want to know who is the director that I consider the greatest of them all? It’s Russian genius Andrei Tarkovsky. Died too soon, in his 54, he left seven films (not counting one early short); Seven films, seven masterpieces whose every scene is crafter with such attention, such detail and such regard to the surrounding scenes and the entire film, that you could spend days on watching each of them. His films were a mix of wonderful photography of places where we wouldn’t even remember to look for beauty, and insightful approach to his universal themes of spirituality and self-questioning.

Of these seven films, unanimously the highest regard is given to his second work, “Andrei Rublev”, glorious biography of 15 century icon painter. On that account, it makes me wonder why are early films by great directors so often regarded the highest, at the point of their career where their vision is still in forming (another example that comes to my mind is Pasolini’s “Gospel according to st. Matthew”). My opinion is that praises these films get are given as much to the conventionality and restraint as to the vision. Needless to say, I usually have trust in great directors and prefer films where they have space to stretch out. My personal favourite of Tarkovsky is “Stalker”, his fifth film based on sci-fi novel by brothers Strugatski, but since I just watched “Nostalghia” the other day, I will talk about that film instead.

Tarkovsky’s biography can be summed shortly in this: Born and raised in SSSR, after finishing his short diploma film “The Steamroller and the Violin”, he was assigned to work on a film based on a mediocre war story by Vladimir Bogomolov, which he transferred to his lyrical space, and the results were far from what government-directed film institutes expected. Next four films are the central period of his work and four of the best known films: “Andrei Rublev”, “Solaris”, “The Mirror”, “Stalker”. He early got a reputation of the puzzling director, puzzling for authorities and censors in a way that they were never sure of all interpretations of his films so, even though he never adressed politics in his films, he was still considered a dangerous author, if only for not applying to a formula of cheerful soc-realism. To manage getting funds by film institutes, he reached for sci-fi themes (“Solaris”, “Stalker”) because this genre was considered harmless being that till that point, in SSSR cinematography is was equalized with cheerful adolescent adventure films. After political problems escalated, he was forced to immigrate after which he made “Nostalghy” in Italy and “The Sacrifice” in Finland. Not long after that he died of lung cancer, leaving many projects he had in his mind never even started.

Is Tarkovsky a visionary? On one hand, his vision was so clear, so different, personal and authentic that there isn’t a film author who can rightfully be compared to him (even though critics try to attach a label of “Tarkovsky’s ancestor” to some new Russian director every now and then). On the other hand, Tarkovsky is one of the last romantics of film, regarding films as high art, assuming no need to keep audience entertained with cheap passing-by hooks, but letting them choose whether they’re going to sink into his films or just stay on surface and miss out on great things. Perhaps the last director who never tried to apply rules of commercial cinema to his work, he is very likely to never have real ancestors simply because nowadays, no directors dare to take such risks.

True to tell, for the greatest part of his career, Tarkovsky’s films were funded by state institutions (apart from the last two, by which he was already acclaimed and praised director) and the situation is SSSR was such that there was little care how much money will be spent as long as entertainment for masses was pouring in. As government funding was on one side a burden, because his films were often kept locked up or without proper distribution long after they were finished, on the other side it was allowing him more freedom during the making of films, as he was granted with almost limitless finances, best equipment and no concern over how much the film would make in box offices. However, Tarkovsky’s films communicate with people, his ideas aren’t obscure and hard to reach, so his films were far from box office failures. Nowadays, when I see a bunch of people waiting in front of cinema for some Tarkovsky’s retrospective, I figure out that even after all these years, even in culture-deprived Belgrade, there’s a nice crowd waiting to see his films.

Which is where I can not but recall of complain of many people that his films are simply boring. They’re films of slow tempo, extremely long takes, but getting through them is even more rewarding experience for that reason; They’re films that dictate their own conditions and that we’re sometimes having hard time to accept those conditions is probably just the result of “more conventional” films that got us used to it. After all, what is the optimal tempo for the film narration? In age when new directing talents are more influenced by MTV’s music videos than anything else, even “Maltese falcon” can seem like slow and boring film. And perhaps it will be one day.

But frankly, I was never bored while watching Tarkovsky’s films (well, perhaps a bit during “The Sacrifice”, but that’s an extreme). The reason is, Tarkovsky never holds his camera on to banal sights, instead he chooses landscapes of... well, certainly not breathtaking beauty, but rather fascinating solemnity or curious sense of decay. During “Stalker”, it seems like camera lingers on every ancient, dust-covered spider web, and there are a lot of them in that film. Tarkovsky leaves us opportunity to admire to the sight the way we’d admire an art photography exposition, to pay attention to details scattered over frames, to think about the significance of a particular scene even while the scene is still going on. Just as well, he rarely lets silence go on for a long time, he rather fills the air with scattered dialogue, even though camera isn’t necessarily paying attention to people talking (would it be disrespectful to say that I just realized some common places between Tarkovsky and anime?). That was the effect that first fascinated me in “Solaris”, his first film that I’ve seen long ago, the ongoing conversation that wouldn’t let the viewer feel abandoned, while I expected something similar to Kubrick’s “2001’s” long, uninterrupted silences.

“Nostalghy” is a film that marked Tarkovsky’s departure from Russia, and as to show the personal nature of Tarkovsky’s vision, it is indeed a film about men far from their native land, far from the place that they feel as their home and as the film goes along, we feel that nostalgia is perhaps too mild to describe how characters in the film feel. Main character, Andrey Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky) travels through Italy, researching for a book about Russian 18th century composer but never feels quite comfortable while in Italy. Visiting some old Roman spa, he meets a local crazy man Domenico (Erland Josephson) who triggers in him strong feeling of homesickness. Gorchakov is accompanied by Italian translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) and there’s a conflict: Gorchakov asks her what she reads to which she replies that she is reading Italian translations of the poems by Arseni Tarkovsky (a poet, Tarkovsky’s father); Gorchakov is dissatisfied as he believes that poetry cannot be translated, furthermore that nothing can be translated and that the gutter between different countries and cultures cannot be bridged, definitely not in an easy way such is translation. Eugenia is clearly hurt that Gorchakov is denying meaning to her profession, and perhaps even more that he’s denying her a possibility of bringing different cultures together, which is the essence of her effort. Does Tarkovsky undeniably agree with Gorchakov, who is clearly his alter ego here? I believe that he gives benefit of the doubt in direction of Eugenia’s idealism, after all, he is basically working with images, not with words, and these are universal – but then again, different cultures will interpret the same images in different ways, according to the cultural heritage, so that’s not certain either. Most of the film as it follows is a series of dreamlike scenes triggered by nostalgia and if images can be understood without translation, then this film should be able to show that sad feeling of departure from home to everyone. Or at least, how an emotive Russian feels when being departed from home.

Tarkovsky was, which is somewhat less known, one of the most analytic directors. Oh yes, his films were deeply emotional, but the way he chose to transfer those emotions to a viewer were analytical. His diaries, published later, were a sort of guidelines, analyzes after making each film of what he achieved, how, what should be changed or kept, how his vision changed since starting to work on that film and in which direction he should move now. From these, it is obvious how much attention he was paying to film language and how important it was to him to use film language for telling.

Given that, even though all of his films had his particular signature, each of them was employing a different method that Tarkovsky found fitting for the theme and tone. For instance, “Stalker”, even though still a film of long, slow takes, contains certain dynamism achieved through faster changes of plane and focus. With both camera and characters slowly moving, he contained his tension in the positions of the characters insider the take.

On the other hand, “Nostalghy” is told through takes that are always moving slowly sideways; Upon reaching some point, they usually return the same way, with the same speed. Sometimes, this camera movement will follow character (an take in which camera moves left and then right three times, first two times following Eugenia, third time Gorchakov walking the same line along the wall of the old building). Other times, camera will move on it’s own, until it reaches the point where dialogue interwoven in the scene finds it’s source (such is the foggy scene with the sulphur swimming pool near the beginning).

As we realize late in the film, this sideways scrolling is pre-planed preceding of what is probably the most important scene in the film: In this scene, Gorchakov indulges in the tedious task of carrying a lit candle from one side of the old, dried up Roman swimming pool to the other side. This entire long and torturous action is shown in one long take, following Gorchakov with, yes, sideways scrolling. First time, the light gets blown out by the draft. He patiently goes back and lights it again. Proceeding slowly, he reaches more than half of the pool’s length but his candle gets blown out again. Again he returns, and again he carries a candle across the pool, in this moment, his face speaks tension and torture. Knowing in advance how this scene should look like, Tarkovsky shapes the rest of the film visually in accordinance with it.

Such care is given to this take that there is no doubt about its importance. Candle light taken from one side to the other is allegory for a human spirit being torn away from it’s place of beginning; Gorchakov, in his haze, finds this game of life importance: if he is able to carry the light without having it put out, then perhaps he will be able to live far away from his homeland without his human spirit being slowly put out and him dying inside. That Gorchakov managed in his task in the end, is more a spark of optimism that is consistent in Tarkovsky’s work, than it is a final conclusion. If nothing, Tarkovsky’s fate spoke of different conclusion.

“Nostalghia” shows some wonderful images of decay. It is placed among old, moldy, ruined buildings, old Roman baths, abandoned and full of mud, walls cracked and covered with vines; We see everyday objects at the bottom of a shallow pond, half-covered with mud, we see a lost dog wondering through scenes, and it seems like it’s worth seeing a film once only to watch at these sights. And leave interpretation for the next time.


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