Nostalghia Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Nostalghia

After a couple of decades of creative battles with the Soviet authorities, the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky managed to secure permission to make a film set entirely abroad – though it says something about his mental state at the time that he chose to make a film about a man effectively dying of homesickness (the spelling of the title refers to a peculiarly Russian form of nostalgia, which suffuses the whole film).

The poet Andrei Gorkachov (Oleg Yankovsky) has travelled to Italy to research the life and work of an obscure Russian musician, but rapidly loses interest in his research as his exile from his homeland makes him aware of just how powerfully he misses it. It’s the study of a culture clash, but not in the way one would expect: Italian people, places and paintings trigger powerful memories of what he has abandoned, and what he may never see again. Although suffused with Italian culture, Nostalghia contains one of the gloomiest, most desolate portraits of Italy ever captured on film (it seems as permanently shrouded in rain and fog as Tarkovsky’s earlier portraits of Russia), though this is a reflection of Gorkachov’s inner turmoil rather than outer reality.

Although clearly the work of the same film-maker, this is a sharp contrast to the earlier Andrei Rublev – by this stage in his career, Tarkovsky was making deeply personal, exceptionally slow meditations rather than narrative films per se, and there’s no question that anyone who hasn’t already sampled Tarkovsky’s unique style should probably pick something other than Nostalghia as a starting-point: the uninitiated will find it very heavy going indeed.

But for those on the right wavelength, the rewards can be immense (the final shot is one of the most hauntingly beautiful images I’ve ever seen, not just on the surface but also for the way it perfectly sums up the entire subject of the film), but at the expense of watching a film that makes huge demands of its audience’s time and patience: its snail-like pace is rather easier to take when shown on the big screen, where the fine detail of a 35mm print gives an audience rather more to look at. That said, the sequence where Gorkachov ritualistically carries a flickering candle across the cavernous Bagno Vignoni, only to find it flicker and die halfway across before he finally succeeds, is riveting in any medium – it’s shot in a continuous take that lasts over nine minutes, by the end of which the tiny flame has come to seem like the most important thing in the world.

Visually, this DVD is adequate but disappointing. It was digitally remastered, presumably for this release, and there’s no doubt that in terms of detail it’s a substantial improvement on earlier VHS releases, but excessive edge enhancement has given some sharp edges an unwanted shimmer, and at times the image seems significantly murkier than I remember from theatrical screenings (though this could be a reflection of the problem with small-screen transfers of Tarkovsky films in general). The film is presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, so the lack of an anamorphic transfer is excusable. The sound is mono, as was the original film, but the DVD does a good job of reproducing it. Sadly, given the two-hour-plus length of the film, there are only eight chapters. There’s just one soundtrack, containing the original film’s blend of Italian and Russian, which comes with optional English subtitles.

Extras are minimal, especially by comparison with Criterion’s Andrei Rublev package. The trailer is one of those ghastly American efforts that pours critical superlatives over the film like treacle, and is more likely to put people off seeing the film than anything else. There are also basic biographies/filmographies, a credits list and a list of awards.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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