No one makes films like Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Andrei Rublev) did. Tarkovsky films don’t merely tell stories. Indeed, narrative coherence is the least of the later Russian filmmaker’s achievements. His films are languid, contemplative, and crafted so as to turn the viewer’s thoughts inward. More than perhaps any other filmmaker, he challenges us to consider our place in the universe as individuals, something we do watching his pictures even as we strive to understand the complex relationship between Tarkovsky’s unique formal trappings and the themes he explores in the works themselves.
Tarkovsky’s 1983 feature, Nostalghia, which notably co-stars Ingmar Bergman collaborator Erland Josephson, is no less stirring a work than any he’d made before, or even the sole picture he’d make thereafter before his death at the age of 54. It follows a melancholy Russian writer (tellingly named Andrei) who’s conducting research in Italy and plagued by memories of his homeland during this self-imposed exile. In this, the film echoes Tarkovsky’s personal life at the time of the production, for Tarkovsky too at this point in his life was living in exile, having defected from the Soviet Union. The film no doubt aided Tarkovsky in grappling with the complex emotions that stirred in him as a result of his defection. What’s more compelling, however, is how uniquely personal the film can feel to viewers, especially those such as myself who have never known exile and the resultant crippling nostalgia.
To this end, Tarkovsky heightens the introspective quality of his rumination on exile, as he did in all other features, through the use of long takes, focusing on a character, an object, a texture until you’ve had time to reflect on its significance and reconsider your appraisal two, three, or four times. Maybe more. We watch the character Andrei sit down on his bed, remove his shoes and lie down in a shot lasting more than three minutes. We watch rain leaking through a roof for what seems like ages. We think we understand the significance of these images, but they just keep going, and so we question ourselves and our interpretation, and we turn our analytic eyes inward.
It’s an experience like no other in cinema. In fact, I’d liken it more to the experience of classical music than to that of conventional cinema. This is cinema you absorb, cinema you inhabit. You let it wash over you, making mental connections between the imagery and your own experiences, your personal philosophy. These associations enrich the work in ways Tarkovsky himself may never have anticipated, ways that make Nostalghia every bit as personal for the individual viewer as it must have been for the artist himself.
In this, Nostalghia is, like the majority of Tarkovsky’s work, an unequivocal masterpiece. And for cinephiles like me, there are few things more exciting than a new-and-improved home video release of a masterwork such as Nostalghia, which recently debuted on Blu-ray from Kino Classics. Hence the occasion for this review.
Kino’s Blu-ray features a newly mastered HD transfer of Nostalghia sourced from archival 35mm film elements. Comparing the image quality of this release to the previous North American DVD and VHS releases of Nostalghia, you’ll find there is in fact no comparison. This is the best Nostalghia has ever looked on home video. That said, there is a considerable amount of speckling throughout that cannot go unnoticed, and some minor scratching as well. The soundtrack is also characterized by sporadic crackling, particularly noticeable at the transition between reels. Hopefully, we’ll someday see the film receive the meticulous restoration it deserves. Still, the picture is clearer and sharper than ever, and to my mind, any improved Tarkovsky transfer makes for a mandatory purchase. Additionally, wereas this release is presented almost entirely sans special features, boasting only the trailer, it’s not like the Fox Lorber DVD offered that much more. That release featured only lists of filmographies and awards in addition to the trailer.
Make no mistake, this is the releases of Nostalghia to own. Retire your VHS, give that DVD to a friend unfamiliar with Tarkovsky, and make the purchase.