Nostalghia - Andrei Tarkovsky - Oleg Yankovsky - Andrei Gorchakov - pool of Santa Caterina - pool of Saint Catherine - bathers - Bagno Vignoni - fog

1983, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

In a sense Nostalghia is a seamless continuation of Stalker, picking up where the journey into the Zone had left off. It opens as the characters arrive by a miraculous room where wishes are granted. As in Stalker, only one of the travelers goes inside, while the writer opts to remain outside in spite of the trouble he took to get there. In this case the room is the crypt of a romanesque church where the sacristan warns Eugenia that “if there are any casual onlookers who aren’t supplicants, then nothing happens.”

Although no such condition is ever verbalized in Stalker, we’re left to understand that the Stalker only receives the benefit promised in the room because he enters it in the position of a supplicant – shoved face down into the dirty water by force, humiliated, not even allowed a moment’s peace of mind in the magical space. Eugenia however declines to supplicate herself. Whether because of her high heels or a lack of faith, she can’t bring herself to genuflect, and it’s uncertain whether she’ll ever receive the reward offered by the Madonna of Childbirth. Eugenia is looking for a man, and she’ll soon be disappointed when Gorchakov shows more interest in Domenico than in her.

Nostalghia - Andrei Tarkovsky - Domiziana Giordano - Eugenia - Chiesa di San Pietro - crypt

The reward of the room, however, is not quite the point of Nostalghia, even less than in Stalker where the selfless title character passes it on to his daughter (not by any act of will but by virtue of his innermost wish). The sacristan also counsels Eugenia: “You want to be happy… there are more important things.” Nostalghia is more about a kind of spiritual reward than anything we would recognize as earthly happiness, and instead of going to Eugenia it will pass to Andrei Gorchakov. Like the writer before him in Stalker, Gorchakov may lack the courage to enter the gift-giving space, but his patch of white hair and the uncanny resemblance of his hotel room to the Stalker’s bedroom mark him as the Stalker’s heir. The procession in the romanesque church ends with a flock of birds released from the Madonna, and the scene cuts to a feather falling at Gorchakov’s feet in one of his visions of home. It’s as if he’s been anointed with a kind of grace. A second feather will fall beside him later in the sunken church, confirming the significance of the first.

In Tarkovsky’s films, divine gifts do not just fall into people’s laps. The feathers are tokens of grace, but Gorchakov must earn his destined reward through an active work of faith at the cost of his life. The title of Nostalghia describes a longing for home, but more than that, it’s Gorchakov’s deepest wish, the counterpart to the Stalker’s wish for domestic bliss that depends on his daughter’s happiness. On one hand, although he’ll never return home again, Gorchakov carries his home inside him, the same way the lovers in Casablanca will carry Paris through the rest of their lives. On the other hand his home is his heavenly reward, relocated in the final shot into the ruins of the gothic church where he had dreamt of God’s voice conversing with his personal angel. If one takes an eternal view of time, there’s no need to distinguish between the remembered and the hoped-for visions of home, but – again, as in Casablanca – its enjoyment requires an act of sacrifice performed with faith. The object of Nostalghia is to define this act of sacrifice.

Nostalghia - Andrei Tarkovsky - Oleg Yankovsky - Andrei Gorchakov - Santa Maria in Vittorino - Cittaducale - sunken church - submerged church

It’s essential that the sacrifice not be something Gorchakov chooses. He doesn’t get to play God… rather it should be a calling, something that life presents unexpectedly. At Bagno Vignoni he and Eugenia meet the local madman Domenico, and Gorchakov, with his Russian notion of the “holy fool” (familiar from Andrei Rublev and Stalker), looks up to the man with respect, unlike the Italians who mock Domenico and keep throwing him out of the pool. Domenico’s first scene foreshadows Gorchakov’s calling. The poet initially appears behind the madman holding one side of his coat open the same way he’ll shield the candle at the end. Domenico asks Eugenia for a light, and the flame goes out in the wind as Gorchakov’s flame will also blow out in the pool. In another shot Gorchakov walks slowly through the sulphurous mist along the pool’s edge, again foreshadowing his final walk. Toward the end of the scene Gorchakov plays with a lighter, igniting it twice.

Domenico has already been trying to cross the pool of St. Catherine with a lighted candle, convinced that the gesture will somehow save the world. When Gorchakov comes to his house, Domenico passes the task on to him. At first the Russian quietly puts the candle back on the shelf, but the madman notices, so Gorchakov obligingly takes it in his pocket. Only in Rome, on the threshold of returning home, does he resolve to go back to the pool and carry out his seemingly pointless promise.

Between Bagno Vignoni and Rome is a bridge passage that prepares for Gorchakov’s change of heart. He wanders drunk into the “submerged church” of Santa Maria in Vittorino, a collapsed mannerist structure in Cittaducale whose floor is flooded and whose walls are partly sunken. The scene begins with an underwater angel; Gorchakov talks with a little girl named Angela; the second feather falls toward him; and he dreams of his guardian angel speaking with God. All these signs of angelic presence hint at his inspiration, and in fact there are two spoken passages in this church that anticipate his upcoming walk across the pool which will define the entire point of Nostalghia.

Nostalghia - Andrei Tarkovsky -

The first spoken passage is a poem by the director’s father Arseniy Tarkovsky, whose last six lines must have been the inspiration for both Domenico’s final act in Rome and Gorchakov’s final act at the pool of St. Catherine:

During the party, like a candle I wasted away.
Gather up at dawn my melted wax
And read in it whom to mourn, what to be proud of,
How by donating the last portion of joy,
To die lightly, and in the shelter of a makeshift roof
To light up posthumously, like a word.

The reading of this poem in voice-over ends with a volume of poetry on fire, illustrating the last line literally. In the last two scenes, Domenico and Gorchakov will present different versions of wasting away “like a candle” or lighting up “like a word”. Each man’s action will offer a different answer to the all-important question of how to inspire others. We’ll need to be aware that those two scenes are paired, because the difference between them is the substance of Nostalghia.

The second spoken passage is a seemingly nonsensical drunken joke about a man who rescues another from sinking into a slimy pond. In the unfunny punchline the rescued man berates his rescuer: “You idiot! I live there.” Whereas the poem points to the commonality between Domenico and Gorchakov, the joke shows the difference. It’s not that the two men in the joke correspond exactly to the two characters – it seems to be inspired by the bathers trying to “save” Domenico – rather it’s the divide between high and low, between living in the air or living in the ground. In all of his movies Tarkovsky sides with the latter. The bellcaster’s son in Andrei Rublev works in a muddy pit but achieves greater things than the balloonist who soars through the heavens. The Stalker must be abased in the polluted water of the Room to earn the reward for his daughter. The sacristan’s admonishment to Eugenia is another version of the same idea. Divine grace, enlightenment, and inspiration must all come from below, not from the purity of the heavens but from the humble dirt of the earth. After telling his joke, Gorchakov must understand that instead of condescending to save Domenico, he should revere the madman’s lowliness.

Nostalghia - Andrei Tarkovsky - Oleg Yankovsky - Andrei Gorchakov - candle - pool of Santa Caterina - pool of Saint Catherine - ending - walk - Bagno Vignoni

When Gorchakov finally embraces his assignment, returning to the baths with Domenico’s candle, he and the madman have traded places. Now it’s Domenico who takes the exalted position, railing at the masses from atop a monumental horse in a famous square of Rome, whereas Gorchakov welcomes his own embarrassment in a sunken, muddy, stinking pit. Of course in Domenico’s case there’s always been an element of exaltation, grandiloquently believing he’s saving the world. That’s his madness – but Gorchakov crosses the pool without pretension. Each of them brings Arseniy Tarkovsky’s poem to life, but – in a film where the problems of translatability are highlighted – Domenico has translated the poem badly, while Gorchakov, being fluent in its original language, understands how to live the poem.

Nostalghia‘s two climactic acts parallel and contrast with each other. There are two fires (an immolation and a candle), two deaths, and two excerpts of famous music (Beethoven’s Ninth and Verdi’s Requiem), each used with irony (the Ode to Joy is set to extreme agony, and Gorchakov enters eternal life). One is elevated, the other happens in a sunken place. Like the balloonist in Andrei Rublev, Domenico’s bold act is a spectacle of failure. The crowd is as mad as he is, and he influences nobody. The same goes for real life, where suicidal acts of protest rarely if ever achieve their desired aims. Gorchakov’s modest act, on the other hand, which he cannot even claim as his own, is like the bellcasting in Andrei Rublev that inspires the great icon painter. He astounds a group of spectators who never expected a foreigner of high repute to complete Domenico’s errand.

Nostalghia - Andrei Tarkovsky - Oleg Yankovsky - Andrei Gorchakov - final shot - gothic church

After Gorchakov redeems Domenico’s folly, giving dignity to his walk across the pool with a candle, it’s no longer quite so far-fetched to suppose that he will influence people as the madman had intended. Nostalghia asks us to imagine how a small act like this might possibly save the world – not on its own, as Domenico might have believed, but as a spark, taking hold in the people who witness it. By the same token, Tarkovsky surely hoped that the film itself would be that spark. In his next film it’s abundantly clear that the world needs saving.


Idiot’s Delight – Madman admonishing the world while acting superior to it

The Wizard of Oz – Home filmed in sepia, foreign land filmed in color

Ornamental Hairpin – Sacramental and wordless solo walk at the end

Casablanca – Memory that will sustain and inspire character(s) for life; requirement of sacrifice

Early Summer – Film opens on a cue from a recent film by the same director

Winter Light – Sign of God’s presence when it feels lacking (light in window, feather)

Red Desert – Line about adding one drop of liquid to another resulting in a single drop

Persona – Two women’s faces brought together in a physical or imagined conflation

Andrei Rublev – Contrast between an act of pride in a high place and an act of faith in a low place

Blow-Up – Requirement of active participation to complete an experience

Solaris – Black and white photography demarcates thoughts of the past

Stalker – Room where wishes are granted; dog; bedroom; sepia & color; Arseniy Tarkovsky poems; excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth; Porcupine/Sosnovsky; protagonist napping on a swampy island; patch of white hair; rewards given to a person who takes a low position

Veronika Voss – Accumulation of allusions to angels

The Sacrifice – Final action appears insane unless the viewer is actively involved; necessity of saving the world; skepticism toward words

The Wild Pear Tree – Character who resumes an older character’s seemingly pointless task in a sunken area or pit; statue of a horse; childhood home; ambiguous dream sequences; meditative shots of snow and water