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Film Review: Nostalghia

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Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Available Jan. 21 on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming

In the early ’80s, director Andrei Tarkovsky left his native Russia behind and devoted his first film shot outside the Soviet Union to looking back. Nostalghia, remastered for a new home video release by Kino Lorber, extends the elliptical spiritual questing and deeply personal film language he perfected in his two preceding masterpieces, The Mirror and Stalker, but it can’t escape the retrograde air telegraphed in its title.

Tarkovsky’s scenario, co-written with Tonino Guerra, centers on a poet named Andrei (Oleg Yankovskiy) who has traveled to Italy as part of his research on the life of an ill-fated Russian composer who once made the same trip. While visiting a fresco-lined convent, his voyage ebbs to stasis as he banters with flirty blond translator Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) and encounters local eccentric Domenico (Bergman stalwart Erland Josephson). While the exile flashes on black-and-white visions of the wife and home he longs to return to, Domenico tasks Andrei with nothing less than saving the world through an unlikely devotional act.

Tarkovsky’s mature work defies simple plot-summary encapsulation, but Nostalghia represents the closest it ever veered toward a mere cluster of auteurial obsessions and tics. The decay and ruin of Stalker reappear here, and while the destroyed elegance he captures is visually sumptuous, the rain dripping into every other building through the ceiling distracts with its unlikely pervasiveness. The somber Andrei and the antic Domenico feel less like characters than stand-ins for the concepts (and perhaps autobiographical aspects) with which Tarkovsky was wrestling. Eugenia’s attempts to throw herself at Andrei begin to make her seem as mad as Domenico. The Mirror prepared the director’s fans for the thin air of Tarkovsy’s filmmaking at its most intensely intuitive, but Nostalghia dawdles and tacks right up to the threshold of tedium. (His 1986 follow-up, The Sacrifice, would represent a return to plot, and to his previous form.)

Still, even the biggest misfire by one of the greatest filmmakers who ever put eye to viewfinder contains unmissable moments: fog-wreathed beauty, beguiling revelations, a self-immolation that plays like an apocalyptic act rather than a mere stunt, and a pair of film-ending shots that boggle with their inscrutable poetic genius. Tarkovsky was dead at age 54 a mere three years after Nostalghia debuted. If only he could have made a few more like it.

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