Films by the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (probably best known for the original Solaris) are not for those seeking an adrenalin rush or a roller coaster ride. Richly textured, unabashedly focused on philosophical and literary themes and very slowly moving, Tarkovsky’s films create self-referential worlds that wrap viewers in an embrace verging on the suffocating. Not all are equally successful, but the demands he placed on viewers are too obvious and central to his method to be ignored.
There is a famous scene in Nostalghia, for example, in which the protagonist, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Jankovsky), a Russian poet doing research in Italy, walks from one end of a dry swimming pool to the other carrying a lit candle. The single shot of several minutes is focused entirely on whether the flame will go out, or if Gorchakov will stumble. By riveting our attention on that tiny candle, Tarkovsky’s relentless method inevitably arouses questions about the very nature of suspense, involvement and our place in the world. For if the fate of a single flame can be made so compelling, no aspect of human experience can be dismissed as too trivial.
It is ironic that such a spiritual search should come from a filmmaker from the “materialist” Soviet Union. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine a Tarkovsky emerging from anywhere else. For only an environment blithely unconcerned with profit or audience appeal could nurture so singular a vision. Nostalghia, one of two films he made after he left Russia, addresses this paradox thematically. Gorchakov is isolated and homesick, tempted by the pleasures of the West (and the flesh) embodied in his guide and translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano). By making his own alienation the subject of the film, Tarkovsky is able to replicate the dense focus of his Soviet work, to externalize the anguish of exile by transplanting Russia to Italy through his (and Jankovsky’s) bodies. He continues his quest to make the film image yield more, to transcend its merely material content by projecting his psyche on to the Italian landscape, in effect, conjuring Russia through the visualization of his consciousness. (His last film, The Sacrifice, made in Sweden, is far less successful in this regard.)
Far from becoming an exercise in navel gazing, however, this intensely personal projection opens vistas of speculation unavailable to the standard story film. Gorchakov’s emotional exhaustion and estrangement invite us to look inward, to discover the unexplored depths of our own dissatisfaction, desperation, longing and inadequacy. To be sure, Tarkovsky’s work is not easy and when his method fails, the results can be tedious. Even the rich imagery has an unnerving edge, as the dirt, detritus and flotsam of daily life radiate the aura of the inexplicably beautiful. When working at peak form, however, Tarkovsky’s cinema is not only a testament to one man’s uncompromising vision, but proof of the medium’s limitless horizons.