If I had seen Tarkovsky’s sixth film, “Nostalghia,” in the year 1986 when it was released, it probably would have infuriated me, but I was only twenty-six. It’s easier to comprehend after half a century’s worth of experience.
In Act I, the poet and his female interpreter arrive in a Tuscan village near a chapel with a miraculous fresco and some steamy, natural, healing baths. The couple stays dry and bickers over which one of them better understands the other’s culture. He tells her to throw away the book of translated poems she’s reading because “poetry, the whole of art in fact, is untranslatable.” This is Tarkovsky’s retort to the Soviet censors whose State he has fled in his quest for artistic freedom.
However, the conviction expressed by the poet in that little exchange of dialog flatly contradicts an opinion the director wrote in his book, “Sculpting with Time.” Tarkovsky proposed that the more successfully the artist’s views are hidden, the greater a work of art will be. Yet, here is a case where the main character blatantly expresses a view that the director lays claim to publicly.
So it appears he is contradicting himself, but perhaps there is an untranslatable view hidden within all of this. To help us get at it, I supply a quote from composer Paul Hindemith. I came across it decades ago in a very helpful book entitled, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” by Betty Edwards. This quote evokes what Tarkovsky might be saying regarding what remains untranslatable.
“We all know the impression of a very heavy flash of lightening in the night.
Within second’s time we see a broad landscape, not only in its general outlines but with every detail. Although we could never describe each single component of the picture, we feel that not even the smallest leaf of grass escapes our attention. We experience a view, immensely comprehensible and at the same time immensely detailed, that we never could have under normal daylight conditions, and perhaps not during the night either, if our senses and nerves were not strained by the extraordinary suddenness of the event…”
The quote goes on to say that a bona fide master is capable of holding such an impression in his imagination and construct it with his chosen medium, remaining engaged in the task unto the very last detail. Tarkovsky worked that way.
Returning to our current film, no matter how beguilingly she offers it, the Botticelli-like beauty of the Italian translator fails to seduce the enigmatic Russian poet. Why has he brought such a desirable woman along and then arranged for separate rooms? This seems not quite right. He could have hired a friar for less. We won’t be attempting to answer that question here, although I invite you to.
It is clearly not what she had in mind when the poet retires to his quarters. He peruses the room, alone. The windows, walls, and furnishings are like living lines in a poem. Shift to black and white; a dark-haired woman beams at him in some recurring dream or vivid reverie. An adolescent girl gambols barefoot with her German shepherd dog on the edge of a pond.
When he snaps back to the present the light spectrum expands with him, but what’s the difference? Light is scarce. Colors are subdued. He pokes his head out a window. It’s raining, he closes the blinds. He turns on a wall switch then turns it off. He crosses in front of a whitewashed wall, past an iron bed. He pauses, framed in the dark doorjamb of a lighted bathroom, then goes in. On the wall hangs a mirror over a sink. The poet practically brushes it with his cheek as he bends for a drink, but never glances at himself. In the third act, he takes a rather long look in a mirror, making this one echo even more mysteriously, in retrospect, lit such as it is so deliberately, almost like the ring of Saturn.
At this time, the cinematic master begins riffing variations on a familiar pattern. He makes chords with objects and their resonances. For example the next visual harmony in the key of H2O is impressive. It involves rain that’s been shut outside, a stream that flows freely from a faucet and a bottle of aqua mineral standing still on the dresser.
Before we leave the bathroom, notice this dark sliver along the left limb of that disk-shaped mirror. Tarkovsky’s lens insinuates all possible depths. He does so by concealing the camera in a shot and then pointing it at you. What that black slit reflects, to the poets left, is a cleft where the audience sits. Go ahead, stare back at yourself with us, behind the man’s back. We share a magic wall with him and his double. You’re hiding inside there too, along with the camera and the director.
In shots we have already analyzed, from both “Mirror,” “Ivan’s Childhood” and “The Sacrifice,” it is evident that Tarkovsky loves to crowd three dimensions with illusion of more. Here in “Nostalghia,” he imbues the mirror with a total of ten.
Now there’s something for the imagination to stretch out in.
He is riffing comfortably on this water triplet, we’ve already described. Then he inserts this little variation for mirror and lens that opens like an accordion, but with a cinematic instrument, not music. If two mirrors opposed each another here it would demonstrate what is known as the Droste Effect.
Exchange one of those mirrors for a lens and hide it inside the other. Now we are not confined to look from one end to the next through a score of dead reflections, but can penetrate the image with our mind while each layer of the telescoping reflection penetrates in a backwards direction, through our perceptions, one after the other. We are introduced, through the vivid suggestion of this superficial edifice, to the intricate pleats of a hand-made, ingeniously embedded, pre-digital hologram.
The room you occupy at present happens to be connected to this bathroom on a movie set where the actor stood in a bygone time and place. Thanks to the filmmaker’s device we can locate ourselves peering out from behind that blind, decades later in a completely different physical space. You think I’m making this up? For more on this preoccupation, listen to postman Otto spin his yarn about a widow and her unfortunate son at RT 38:10:00 in Act I of “The Sacrifice” (1986 – Criterion 2011 Ed.).
Now let the rest of us proceed to RT 21:48:00 in “Nostanghia” (1983 – Kino Lorber 2014 Ed.) Help me decipher the number of dimensional thresholds through which we are looking. Glance backward, for a moment, through the camera, hiding in that dim sliver, is if your eyes were the lens. Behind it is some film in a compartment where the impression is fixed. Now see if your imagination will let you climb onto that image and travel with it wherever it goes. For no longer than it takes to fall in and out of a daydream there are nine coils packed in this jack in the box, hung vertically on the screen for your senses to expand through. You think I’m full of it? I don’t blame you. Let’s have a closer look.
In the center of this multidimensional point of view, a poet’s image subdivides. Right behind his back, in the same frame, find yourself looking both outward and inward. Through the clever, cinematic, domain-shifting telescope, witness how it simultaneously projects into dimensional recesses on screen and bounces backward through your irises and off the back wall of your brain.
Three distinct thresholds, on either side of the glass, delineate four dimensions; each counts as one volume and its twin for a total of ten domains stacked, unpacked, rewound, played and multiplied again and again, every time this clip is selected.
When I first saw this, I turned the movie off and went to bed pondering the rare perspective. Behind those indelible thirty-three seconds of film time Tarkovsky’s secret is protected.