“Lost in Space”: The Nostalgic Anti-Heroes of Two Russian-Italian Co-Productions: Tarkovskii’s Nostalghia (1983) and Mikhalkov’s Ochi Neri (1987)
Editor’s notes: Peter Christensen was an Assistant Professor of English at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at SUNY-Binghamton, where he wrote a dissertation on Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Sartre (1979). He previously contributed to the Review of Contemporary Fiction with essays on Alasdair Gray and Edmund White as well as Stanley Elkin. He has published over one hundred articles on twentieth-century literature and film, including essays on John Cowper Powys, D. H. Lawrence, Marguerite Yourcenar, Simone De Beauvoir, and Jean Cocteau.” His articles on movies often translated the German, Russian, etc. For example, he wrote several articles on Flash Gordon (1936) – exposing it not an original but rather stole from a Russian movie. Watch Aelita (Russian, silent, 1924). Aelita was based on a novel by Tolstoy (Аэлита – Aelita: Queen of Mars). I received the following article from Peter and am posting it in hopes that a friend’s works are not forgotten.
To better understand Peters’s article, find a copy of Sculpting in Time, Reflections on the Cinema, by Andrey Tarkovsky, translated from the Russian by Kitty Hunter-Blair. “Andrey Tarkovsky, the genius of modern Russian cinema—hailed by Ingmar Bergman as “the most important director of our time”—died an exile in Paris, 1986. In Sculpting in Time, he has left his artistic testament, a remarkable revelation of both his life and work. Since Ivan’s Childhood won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1962, the visionary quality and totally original and haunting imagery of Tarkovsky’s films have captivated serious movie audiences all over the world, who see in his work a continuation of the great literary traditions of nineteenth-century Russia. Many critics have tried to interpret his intensely personal vision, but he himself always remained inaccessible. In Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky sets down his thoughts and his memories, revealing for the first time the original inspirations for his extraordinary films—Ivan’s Childhood, Andrey Rublyov, Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker, Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice. He discusses their history and his methods of work, he explores the many problems of visual creativity, and he sets forth the deeply autobiographical content of part of his oeuvre—most fascinatingly in The Mirror and Nostalgia.”
Dark Eyes (Italian Dark Eyes 1987 movie, Russian Очи чёрные) came out of an adaption from a series of stories by Anton Chekhov (Russian). Some in Russia felt that director Mikhalkov, who previously received wide acclaim for another Chekhov adaptation, tried too hard to cater to foreign tastes rather than to convey Chekhov’s mood. So this film conveys more of a foreign idea what Chekhov is about rather than a Russian one. Chekhov’s career as a dramatist produced four classics and “is considered to be among the greatest writers of short stories in history.” “His originality consists in an early use of the stream of consciousness, combined with a disavowal of the moral finality of traditional story structure. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.”
Because of the undeniable stature of Andrei Tarkovskii as one of the greatest and most original filmmakers of our time, there has been relatively little scholarship comparing his work to that of other contemporary directors. Maria Turovskaia, however, does compare his work in passing Bergman’s. Tarkovskii’s sudden exile and early death in 1986 claimed him before the post 1989 world came into being. A comparison between Tarkovskii’s, Nostalgia and Mikhalkov’s Ochi Neri or Dark Eyes (Ochi cheryne), made four years later, produces a new way of seeing Tarkovskii’s penultimate film. His anti-hero’s nostalgia is based on a hope that he can return to a place and a way of life in which he once existed without experiencing the ravages of time. In contrast, Mikhalkov’s anti-hero’s nostalgia is rooted in his knowledge that time is ever passing.
These films lead to an interesting comparison in each case an Italian screenwriter associated with the prestigious days of post-war Italian cinema was part of the project, In the case of Nostalghia, Tonino Guerra, famous for his screenplays for Antonioni, was the writer. In the case of Dark Eyes, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, long associated with Luchino Vicsonti, was a participant in the collaboration. Nostalghia and Dark Eyes represent one attempt to get back to intimate dramas in Italian cinema. Fellini’s turn in direction with Satyricon, Visconti’s with La Caduta dei, and Pasolini’s with Oedipo Re and Medea in the late 1960’s, all symbolic works played out on a vast campus, moved Italian cinema farther away from neo-realism. Nostalghia and Dark Eyes, without subscribing to neo-realism, return to the smaller scale drama, based on character development.
Juxtaposing Tarkovskii and Mikhalkov is instructive for several reasons. In terms of Western distribution of films, Tarkovskii has received as an auteur of the highest standards. Because of his small but brilliant body of work and problems distributing his films in the Soviet Union, he has tended to find body of work and problems his films, he has tended to find himself classified with Sergi Paradzhanov, a director even more persecuted and more obscure.
What can we learn from discussing Nostalghia and Dark Eyes together? First, we find temporary extensions of the theme of the superfluous man in Russian culture in the protagonist of each film. Second, we explore a bit another episode of Russian-Italian cultural exchange, for example, that important figures such as Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky chose to live in Italy. Third, we see that Tarkovskii’s concern with “Sculpting in time” to create a sense of duration to be compared to Mikhalkov’s sense of the passage of time through his Chekhovian concerns with the potential monotony of existence.
Both Nostalghia and Dark Eyes are Italian-Russian co-productions which explore the cultural distance between the two countries while stressing Italy in terms of the location of the diegesis. Each film uses actors from both Russia and Italy. In Nostalghia Russia haunts the Russian protagonist who has left it, whereas in Dark Eyes, it haunts the protagonist who has visited and returned to Italy.
Nostalghia tells the story of Andrei Gorchakov, a contemporary poet, who is doing research in Tuscany. The Italian interpreter, Evgenia, takes what appears to be a romantic interest in him, but he keeps her at a distance, choosing instead to spend time with a mad recluse named Domenico. Separately, Evgenia and Domenico go to Rome, where to her horror she sees him burn himself to death in the Campodoglio, as a protest against contemporary life. Meanwhile, Gorchakov, who knows nothing of the event, collapses and apparently dies as he does a symbolic deed for Domenico of walking across a slimy pool of water with a lighted candle.
Dark Eyes, in contract, is a story from the pre-World War One period. Romano, the lazy husband of Eliza, a cultured pretentious Roman socialite, becomes so irritated and bored with his life of casual affairs that he temporarily separated from his wife. Arriving at a spa, he is suddenly struck with love for a Russian woman, Anna, who has a little dog. He declares his love to her, but the day after they sleep together, she flees back to Russia and the husband whom she does not love. He follows her some weeks later and against all odds finds her. After they again declare their love, he goes back to Italy to prepare to be with Anna forever, but he falls under the spell of his wife and lacks the courage to seek emotional fulfillment.
One the one hand we have Nostalghia in which Gorchakov, the nostalgia ridden anti-hero, is a Russian poet of the 1980s sympathetic to a madman in the form of an Italian apocalyptic visionary and hostile to an attractive translator with some feminist independence. On the other hand, we have Dark Eyes, where the ennui-drenched Italian anti-hero, Romano Patroni, is a turn of the century wastrel, unhappily married to a rich woman, indifferent to promoting his inventions and incapable of seeking happiness with the confused but vibrant Russian woman he has loved. Ironically, she turns out to have just married the sympathetic Russian listener to whom the anti-hero tells the story of his loss of love, a tale which constitutes almost the duration of the film. Tarkovskii’s Gorchakov can never get back to the Russia that he misses, whereas Mikhalkov’s Romano chooses to give up love abroad and stay in his homeland in a pathetically unsatisfying marriage to a woman born into a higher class than himself. For Mikhalkov both Russia and Italy are class structured societies, and one is not that much different than the other.
Russia’s attempt to Westernize is so successful that it represents the tamed exotic or the reconcilable other. The threat of Westernization through manufacturing is presented to Romano through the figure of the ecologically consciously veterinarian. When Mikhalkov’s hero returns to Italy, it is not because he suffers from nostalgia but because he cannot break out of the live of the superfluous man that he has always led. In short the major problem of the anti-heroes is with themselves not their environments. One feels that wherever they go, they will not be able to live up to their potential.
Whereas Gorchakov is totally oblivious that one cannot step in the same river of life twice, Romano is so aware of the river of time that carries him on that he cannot exert himself to resist its flow and end his passivity. Gorchakov ends up bitter, reduced to symbolic gestures of solidarity, and then most likely dead; Romano reduced to being a waiter on a luxury boat, at least retains the ability to communicate and accept the happiness of others. Romano is an Italian “nephew” of Oblomov, with some of the likeable audacity of his “uncle” But Gorchakov is a Dostoevskian ideologue divorced from the big picture of life. Although Tarkovskii is sculpting scenes in time, it is ironically Mikhalkov who gives up the larger Chekhovian sense of the ravages of time.
Tarkovskii in Sculpting in Time points out that Pavel Sosnovskii in his penultimate film is loosely based on Makaimilian Bereziovskii (1745-1777), composer of the opera Demofont (1773). Quoting from Tarkovskii’s Sculpting in Time, Mark Le Fauna summarizes: Berezovskii “showed such musical ability that he was sent by his landowner to study in Italy where he stayed many years, gave concerts and was much acclaimed. But in the end, driven no doubt by…inescapable Russian nostalgia, he eventually decided to return to serf owning Russia, where, shortly afterwards, he hanged himself.” In brief, Sosnovskii was a serf who preferred slavery at home to freedom abroad and then killed himself.
For Guy Gauthier, Sosnovskii, the composer, is also a figure based on the well-known composer, Dmitrii Bortnianskii, the legitimate son of a nobleman and a serving woman, who went to Italy where he wrote very original Italian operas. Geoffrey writes in The New Dictionary of Music and Musicians that Dmitrii Stepanovich Bortnianskii (1751-1825), from Ukraine, was thought to have studied with Galuppi in the imperial choir. In 1769 he went to Italy on scholarship, returning to Russia in 1779. He wrote three operas in Italy and four on his return. He was a student of Martini, who in turn had studied with Mozart. Tchaikovsky edited his complete sacred works in 1881, and today many of those pieces of church music are available on recordings. However, no music by Bortnianskii is used in Nostalghia. Instead a warped recording of Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy from the Ninth Symphony accompanies Domenico’s suicide.
There are several problems with that making interpreting Nostalghia difficult, and consequently directly opposite views of its ending have been proposed. The spectacular last shot may represent the overcoming of nostalgia through the union of past and present, Russia and Italy. On the other hand, it may show the encasement of the motionless hero in front of his dacha (editor’s note: year-round second home located some distance from a Soviet city) within the ruins of an Italian church, indicating the failure of his attempt to overcome nostalgia and to make the nostos, or homecoming. There are two sets of reasons for the interpretative problem. Firstly, Tarkovskii has fostered it in several ways. Secondly, the film is ambiguous.
Let us look first at Tarkovskii himself. One, Tarkovskii had read both endings onto the film in his comments in Sculpting in Time. He calls the ending “A model of the hero’s state, of the division within him which prevents him from living as he has up until now”; yet he adds ingenuously, “Or perhaps on the contrary, it is his new wholeness in which the Tuscan hills and the Russian countryside come together; he is conscious of them as inherently his own, merged into his being and his blood.”
Two, in the same book, his three definitions of nostalghia leave us with too much latitude for the film’s title. Tarkovskii at one point presented nostalghia as as a specifically Russian state of attachment to national roots; at another time, a “global yearning for the wholeness of existence” and on a third occasion Hamlet’s sense that “the time is out of joint.” He had directed Hamlet at the Komsomol Theatre in Leningrad in 1977, where he took the view that Hamlet does not come to a religious awareness in the last act but rather allows himself to die because he has degenerated into a murderer.
On the question of nostalghia, Giovanni Buttafava writes that Marina Tsvetaeva fits the description with so much nostalghia that she goes home and kills herself, almost like Sosnovskii did. He adds: “The eighteenth century does not provide, even with all the writers who spend a great part of their lives in the West, an authentic sense of toska po rodine, or ‘nostalghia for the homeland.’ Nostalghia is a literary term that few Russians currently use. The nineteenth century would offer closer ideology references to the Soviet situation.”
Three, Tarkovskii in an interview before the film’s shooting offered bitter words later given to a specific character in the film, Gorchakov. When Gorchakov tells Evgenia after she comes out of the church that translation is a useless profession, he once again takes a timeless view of life. Gorchakov’s condemnation of Evgenia’s belief that Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli can reveal something about Italy suggests at the very chance to know something of the Italian past through translation of literary works. Yet Tarkovskii apparently agreed with Gorchakov in his narrow-mindedness, for, according to Tony Mitchell, Tarkovskii said at a RAI (editor’s note: Radiotelevisione Italiana) press in Rome before production; “We Russians can claim to know Dante and Petrarch, just as you Italians can claim to knows Pushkin, but this is really impossible – you have to be of the same nationality. The reproduction of culture is harmful to its essence and spreads only a superficial impression. It is not possible to teach one person the culture of another.”
If this inflexible view is really Tarkovskii’s he seems to be suggesting that one can more easily communicate with a madman that with a foreigner. In an interview with Irene Brezna, Tarkovskii echoes Gorchakov in his lament that the world is divided up by political barriers that must be broken down. The Cold War and its barbed wire has only promoted nostalgia— according to Tarkovskii—which I dare say may be so, but his statement once again shows that his use of the term “nostalgia” is very loose.
Four, on biographical level, I find it hard to believe that Tarkovskii, who settled for a time in Italy, found the country to be only a land of ruins. After all, as Mikhail Romadin points out in “Film and Painting” in Solaris, Tarkovskii felt that he wanted to recant the style of the early Italian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, especially in his picture of an embankment for Venice. One also remembers the sense of wonder with which Ignat looks at the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci in The Mirror, The Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, The last Supper, La Gioconda and The Virgin of the Rocks. In fact, according to Gay Gauthier, Tarkovskii loved Italy. Yet Tullio Masoni and Paolo Vecchi quote quote Kryszof Zanussi as recording that Tarkovskii said that the decline of the West began with Italian Renaissance. When the two directors went to the Uffizi together, Tarkovskii wanted to see only the first three rooms and avoid the later paintings. Furthermore, Maia Turovshaia finds that Nostalghia and the conditions under which it was produced, commercial Western cinema, resulted in and “acrid confrontation between Tarkovsky and Western civilization” in which Tarkovskii resisted Guerra’s idea to use lovely Italian landscapes. Instead, he showed the countryside shrouded in mist not sunlight. Thus, the church at the beginning of the film appears as a potential haven from the outdoors.
When we move to the film itself, we have three other problems. First, as Johnson and Petrie have pointed out, the characters bear too much weight of possible interpretation given their limited dialogue. Second, interpretations of the reality status of the events may lead viewers to opposite conclusions about the film. Johnson and Petrie note that the film is a step toward the questioning of reality through film technique which is even more apparent in The Sacrifice. In earlier films such as The Mirror and Stalker, Vlada Petric had pointed out Tarkovskii’s search for an oneiric air—a dreamlike impact—which resists the audience’s need to verify the logic, as well as the credibility, of the events presented on screen. Third, the film seems by its very nature to prefer the irrational to the rational by labeling hope as “faith” or “fede” without a clearly articulated attack on the weakness of this thinking. There is no presentation of secular community life in the film. The fact that Italy is a democracy is made irrelevant to the film, which stresses the individual in relationship to God and himself or herself. The only person concerned about community, Domenico, is a madman who has caused much suffering to his family.
Fourth, we really do not know enough about Gorchakov and Evgenia to see how their actions fit into their entire lives. I, personally, find that the film more likely leads to a pessimistic conclusion. Gorchakov no longer has a voice. He is reduced to silence and or death in the final shot. Evgenia’s vitality can no longer revitalize him.
As Mark Le Fanu indicates, Nostalghia shared a joint special Jury Award at Cannes in 1983 with Bresson’s L’Argent. In his book on Tarkovskii he wishes to defend Nostalghia from the nihilism he finds in Bresson’s film. However, Le Fanu fails to recognize the nihilist element in Tarkovskii’s film which comes from the director’s either/or mentality of national cultures and gender differences. However, to reclaim the film for a doubtful humanism, Le Fanu does not think of Nostalghia as primarily about nostalgia at all but about the importance of recognizing the spiritual qualities that make Domenico a Holy Fool figure worthy of respect rather than a madman. Massimo Garritano goes even further in reading the film optimistically. He finds that Gorchakov learns to jettison his self-centeredness and identify with the noble-minded Domenico in carrying the candle for him before his own untimely death. Thus the famous last shot shows more of the unification of the Russian and Italian spirit through the deep feeling of the men than sense of permanent cultural clash, which I feel is represented by the end of the film.
In contrast to the humanist/optimist readings of Le Fanu and Garritano, we have the more pessimistic ones of Kreimeier, Schmidt, and Makolkina. Klaus Kreimeier finds the endings of Nostalghia quite unsettling. The Italy of the film is a land of ruins and paralysis, and in the end there is no possibility of a reconciliation of Italy and Russia. Working from an earlier assessment of Eva M.J. Schmidt in Jahrbuch Film 83/84, Kreimeier notes that the music of Mussorgky’s lullaby, as contracted with Verdi’s Requiem, symbolizes the unreconcilable cultural dissonance here. Anna Makolkina goes so far as to call the film the emblem of a death anxiety on Tarkovskii’s part even though Gorchakov does not have what Harvey Kaplan calls pathological as compared to normal nostalgia.
The very idea of a Russian-Italian co-production seems at odds with Gorchakov/Tarkovskii’s idea that cultures are not capable of relating to each other. As an Italian-Russian co-production Nostalghia was begun in March, 1981 funded by Sovin Film and RAI (editor’s note: Radiotelevisione Italiana). Le Fanu claims that this was the first time a Russian artist who was neither a dissident nor émigré had gone to West Europe to do an art project apparently without strings attached. It was the first film by a Russian director to be made for European television. Some filming had been scheduled for Moscow, but eventually it was all shot in Italy.
Le Fanu points out that Tarkovskii (b. 1932) had gone to Italy in 1962 when Ivan’s Childhood was a success at the Venice Film Festival, where he met Tonino Guerra, the great poet, novelist, and screen writer, who at that time associated primarily with the films that made the reputation of Michelangelo Antonioni. In 1980, Tarkovskii and Guerra traveled through Italy to make the short documentary Tempo di viaggio, a seldom seen work, which Le Fanu claims, serves as the prompt for Nostalghia. According to Wolfgang Jacobsen, this short film was initially released in the Soviet Union in a censored form and was not shown in its completed version until the Tarkovskii retrospective at the 15th Moscow Film Festival in July 1987.
Furthermore, Tarkovskii had placed himself squarely in the world of European art cinema since the 1960s and had a particular interest in Antonioni. In the session on “Cinema Thieves—International Intrigue” held at the Centro Palatino in Rome on 9 September 1982, Tarkovlskii presented clips from Mouchette, Nazarin, and La Notte, particularly praising Antonioni for L’Avventura in general and for La Notte’s final sequence as “perhaps the only episode in the whole history of cinema in which a love scene became a necessity and took on the semblance of a spiritual act. As far back as an interview from 1966, Tarkovskii had showed his interest in Antonioni—in this case, his first use of color in Red Desert. From the diaries, we can tell that Tonino Guerra introduced him to Antonioni and got him invited to Antonioni’s expensive villa. Tarkovskii can be seen in 1982 photos with Antonioni and Fellini in Gleb Panfilov’s 1995 article on Tarkovskii. Alexandra Heidi Karriker also feels the influence of Fellini and Antonioni on Nostalghia.
Tarkovskii’s film should logically have been interpreted as pro-Russian rather than pro-Italian. However, after Sergei Bondarchuk, a member of the 1983 Cannes Jury, tried to keep Nostalghia from winning the Palme d’or, Tarkoyskii found himself in trouble with Soviet authorities, despite his claim that his film was a patriotic one that showed the impossibility of Russians ever living happily in Western Europe. The governments of Andropov and Chernenko indicated that he would not be able to work in Russia again, and Tarkovskii chose to stay in the West, even though the authorities had not given leave to his thirteen-year-old son Andrei to join him. In July 1984 Tarkovskii’s defection was announced—about the time he and his second wife Larissa bought a home in Italy at Grosetto. In January 1986 Tarkovskii’s son and mother-in-law were allowed to join him, but after finishing work on The Sacrifice, he died of cancer in Paris on 29 December 1986. Thus ironically Tarkovskii had to deal with enforced exile as compared to the presumably voluntary one of Gorchakov in Nostalghia, even choosing exile over home life with his child. Since Tarkovskii claims in Sculpting in Time that Gorchakov does actually die, and since his heart problem is only mentioned in the film once, we sense that he dies in part from loss of family as much as from physical causes.
When I divide Nostalghia into sequences, I see no indication of progress for Gorchakov. The opening credits offer a black and white Russian landscape with four human figures. Then we suddenly leave these characters to join a car with two passengers outside a Tuscan church. Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Iankovskii), a poet, has gone to Italy for research on the eighteenth century composer Sosnovskii, a figure created by Tarkovskii. Although the film does not enlighten us as to how the research has gone, it may be near the end of fairly successful competition of the project as Gorchakov thinks a great deal about going home to his wife and children. However, he has met in Tuscany an official Italian interpreter names Evgenia (Dominizaia Giordano) and goes to the Chapel of Saint Catherine of Siena with her. There he irritably refuses to enter, while she sees a painting by Piero della Francesca called the Madonna del parto and witness a religious ritual. The scene is an homage to Piero della Francesca, since we are at the Cappella del Cimittero at Monterchi (Azzerro) near the Borgo San Sepolcro where Piero della Francesca was born.
Back at their hotel, it is obvious that Evgenia is more interested in Gorchakov than he in her. He also falls in with Domenio (Erland Josephson) a mad recluse who had locked up his family for seven years because of his apocalyptic fear of the world’s end, at the Bagno Vignoni nearby. Gorchakov visits Domenico at his waterlogged home, alienates Evgenia to the point of her storming off, and then agrees to carry a candle for him across the baths while Domenico takes care of important business away from town. Again at the hotel, after Evgenia has come into Gorchakov’s room to use the electrical socket for her hair dryer, they have a big fight and she accuses him of indifference to her and to life. At the baths, Gorchakov, drunk, tells to a little girl named Agatha the story of a man who was “rescued” from a puddle in which he lived by a well-intentioned jerk. He dreams of a visit to a roofless cathedral and burns a book of poetry.
After Domenico goes to Rome, Evgenia courteously telephones him from the Eternal City, where she is staying with her rich and vulgar boyfriend, to remind him to complete Domenico’s request with the candle. In parallel scenes Domenico (while Evgenia rushes up in horror) burns himself up in the Campidoglio, falling from the horse of the Marcus Aurelius statue. Meanwhile, without knowledge of this suicide, Gorchakov offers a type of memorial to Domenico by walking the thirty meters of the now slimy bath with a lighted candle. When he finally succeeds on the third try, he collapses, probably dying. In the famous last shot the camera pulls out to show Gorchakov with family, dog and dacha in a Russian landscape where the snow is falling, gradually revealed to be lodged within the walls of the cathedral of San Galgano.
It is significant that Tarkovskii does not give a temporal dimension to the idea of nostalgia. The final image is one of timelessness. Gorchakov wants to be back where he always has been, as if he can somehow erase from his memory this trip to Italy, which turns out only to be a detour of what he thinks of as his real life. However, Tarkovskii’s nostalgia is always a return to a place. His anti-hero filled with longing, never realizes that he can never step into the same Heraclitiean (editor’s note: Heraclitus was an “early Greek philosopher who maintained that strife and change are the natural conditions of the universe”) stream twice, for time has marched on and made such a return a desire for a state marked by the clause “as if” things could be the same again. Vladimir Jankelevich shows that this time dimension is important. In his 1974 book, L’Irreverisble et la Nostalgie, he writes:
Mias la d’aller Paris a Lille et vice s’applique a l’espace selement : le trajet se replie et se superose a liu coextensivement pour l’annuler , en sorte que le voyageur le revenu a son point de depart se trouve retabli dans le statu ante : tout comme s’il n etait jamais parti! Mias attention… Seulement comme si! Car au point de temporel le retour s’ inscript a la suite de l’aller dans la biographie d’un voyager a peu ou transforme.
(Peter’s translation) But the freedom to go from Paris to Lille and back is applicable only to space. The trajectory of return bends back on the trip away and superimposes itself on it coextensively so as to annul, so that the traveler, returned to his point of departure, finds himself back in the situation beforehand—all as he had never departed. But, pay attention, it is only an “as if”! From the temporal point of view the return is inscribed after the departure in the biography of the traveler, who has been more or less transformed by the journey.
The failure to account for time in thinking of nostalgia, the factor about which Jankélévitch warns us is indicated by the use of flashbacks, visions, and the opening and closings of Tarkovskii’s film.
It is impossible to locate the first sequence in time. Is it a memory of Gorchakov? Is it the standard which the whole film is set, but supplied by the film maker? Is it the frame for the film continued by the last shot, which also allows the camera to move and take in more and more of the landscape? In any case, we know nothing about Gorchakov’s family or what has happened amongst them before he set off on his trip. According to Maya Turovskaya, Gorchakov’s stay at Bagno Vignoni could have lasted two weeks or two days: it does not correspond to everyday time, as is the scene for departure for Russia via Rome. In Either/Or, in the essay The Unhappiest Man, Kierkegaard describes as the unhappiest man one who is cut off from the present by his longing for the past and his anxiety over the future. The obfuscation of Gorchakov’s present moments occurs through the black and white sequences, which could at time be either pleasing memories or projected hopes for the future, for their temporal location is unclear.
Secondly, when Gorchakov reveals Pavel Sosnovskii’s letter from Bologna, he does not recognize its atemporal longing. The composer who was to commit suicide believed that he could go back to his childhood. It is thus no surprise that his dream is a nightmare about immobility—an expression of his repressed knowledge that failure to accept the passing of time is dangerous. Sosnovskii write to the hypothetical Petr Nikolaevich about his stay in Italy for two years—a period significant for him as an individual. The letter is translated into English in full in Sculpting in Time:
Last night I had a strange nightmare. I was producing an important opera, to be performed in the theatre of my master, the Count. The first act took place in a great park filled with statues, and these were played by nude men made up with white paint, who were obligated to stand for a long time with our moving. I too was acting the part of one of those statues, and I know that were I to move a fearful punishment awaited me, for my lord and master was there in person, watching us. I could feel the cold rising through my feet, and yet I could not move. At last, just as I felt that I had no strength left, I woke up. I was filled with fear, for I knew that this was no dream, but reality itself. I could try to ensure that I never return to Russia, but the very thought is like death. It surely cannot be that as long as I live I shall never again see the land where I was born: the birches and sky of my childhood.
It is paradoxical that the director who championed the idea of “sculpting in time” used his film technique to give a sense of minute-by-minute duration only to block off another sense of Bergsonian duration. It is on Bergson’s thought that Jankelevich, who wrote a book on this philosopher, builds. Despite Tarkovskii’s extreme annoyance at Eisenstein’s failure to adequately account for temporality, the famous long takes of the film, such as Gorchakov’s eight minute walk with three successive candles, are lost to the larger temporality of his life. In Sosnovsky’s dream, time appears in its fearful aspect as the return of the repressed. Were he to move from his statuelike state he would be punished, and once he does move back to Russia, he is punished by his failure to account for the changes that have just taken place in him (and which he as mentioned) over the past two years. So he drinks too much and then kills himself.
Every time we see the wife of Gorchakov appear in what seems most obviously to be a black-and-white memory flashback rather than a vision, there is no way that a temporally based story can be developed. It is just the opposite of Jacques Rivette’s approach in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1973) where ultimately the flashbacks/visions are combined into a moving and amusing story by both the women and the audience. In the boating scene at the end of the film, they finally save the little girl and escape. Without being so “sculptural” with his camera, Rivette has indicated time in its passing mode in a way that Tarkovskii misses.
Although the character of Domenico was inspired by a newspaper story that Guerra found by chance after he began the screenplay, he is a generic religious madman. The speech about peace that he gives from the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is a hopeless harangue to return to the past time before everything went wrong—the usual appeal to the Golden Age that existed in neither time nor space. So I cannot agree with Gideon Bachmann that Domenico in the Roman scene is not presented as being a fanatic. Although Domenico fears the apocalypse, that is, the end of time as disaster, he really dreads the simple passing of time, and he tries to stop it by locking up his family for seven years. The police finally come to let them out, and they are grateful. In the fantasy in the sequence with Agatha at the baths, Gorchakov looks into a wardrobe mirror and sees the reflection of Domenico. It is not a surprising doubling, since they are both so adverse to the passing of natural time.
In the fantasy sequence in the hotel room we see Maria the wife and Evgenia join each other in the same frame, although Evgenia ultimately leaves, and we have only the pregnant Maria on the bed before the film’s lighting techniques make her disappear. Again, we have no idea of the temporal state of the pregnancy. Is it a reminiscence of the birth of his daughter or a desire/premonition of a future birth? We are not allowed to know. The blending of the past and present is made even more concrete by the fact that Domenico’s German shepherd seems a double for Gorchakov’s family dog, which appears for the first time in the first sequence. The viewer feels that Evgenia’s antagonism toward Gorchakov is more deserved than his towards her. He reveals nothing and is afraid of moving on, just as she claims. His visions as an objective correlative to her condemnation of his mind-set.
In the film Arseni Tarkovskii’s poetry, optimistic in its way, turns out to be ironically bleak by counterpoint. Kitty Hunter-Blair’s translation of the second stanza of the poem, “A Sight Grows Dim,” reads:
I’m a candle burnt out at a feast.
Gather my wax up at dawn,
And this page will tell you the secret
Of how to weep and where to be proud,
How to distribute the final third
Of delight, and to make an easy death.
Then, sheltered by some chance roof,
To blaze, word like, with posthumous light.
The bleakness of the film triumphs all over of Tarkovskii’s attempts to endow the film with faith. First, if we accept Domenico’s appraisal of Catherine of Siena, we are stuck with both the self-torturing as well as the spiritual side of this mystic. Guy Gauthier writes that the Libro della divina dottrina of St. Catherine (1347-180) is the mystical text on which the film rests. God said her, “You are the one who is.” St. Catherine preached the double knowledge of God and the self. Yet is not entirely clear where Domenico got his quotation from St Catherine. It may be a paraphrase of the opening line of chapter 18 of the Dialogue, which Suzanne Noffke translates as follows: “Know that no one can escape my hands, for I am who I am, whereas you have no being of all of yourselves.” With this allusion to Exodus 3:14, Catherine’s second petition to God is partially answered.
Catherine my be associated with Domenico, a husband now acting like a religious widower, because, although not a widow, she joined the Mantellate, or widow’s branch of the Domenicans at the age of eighteen, receiving her habit in that year, 1365. At this time she began to live in silence and solitude in her room. She took part in Italian events somewhat naively in her political exhortations, as does Domenico, and she looked for martyrdom. Her death at age thirty three has hastened by long abstinence from food and sleep.
Secondly, at the end of Sculpting in Time, Tarkovskii compares Western and Eastern thought and art to the detriment of the West in spiritual matters. He declares that there are moments when one wants to give up or else give oneself over to some “total world-view—like the Veda.” The West devoured the East, however, with its material civilization. He continues:
Compare Eastern and Western music. The west is forever shouting, “This is me! Look at me! Listen to my suffering, loving! How unhappy I am! How Happy! I! Mine! ME!” In the Eastern tradition they never utter a word about themselves. The person is totally absorbed into God, Nature, Time, finding himself in everything, discovering everything in himself. Think of Taoist music… China six hundred years before Christ… But in that case, why did such a superb idea not triumph, why did it collapse? Why did the civilization that grew up on such a foundation not come down to us in the form of a historic process brought to its consummation?
Some Chinese Taoist music is made by a resident of the hotel in Nostalghia. It is so peripheral that it is like the one last call of real Eastern faith to bed Westerners. One senses here that Russia does not represent the East but rather a part of the negatively pictured West. For Tarkovskii, “civilized society, the great mass of which has no faith, is entirely positivist in outlook.” In the diary entry for 10 July 1981 we see why the film was dedicated to Tarkovskii’s mother: it was a question of faith. On that day he went to her grave site and prayed for to intercede in his life, and suddenly “there was a phone call from Rome, the beginning of the contract negotiations with the Italians.
Third, the legacy of Dostoevsky’s ideological thought informs the film without really clarifying questions of faith. Giovanni Buttafava finds that the dialogue between Domenico and Gorchakov that contains the saying of Catherine reminds him of the talk between Shatov and Stavrogin in the Demons of Dostoevsky. Buttafava writes: To Stavrogin’s question,” Do you believe in God?” Shatov, who takes on himself the role of sacrificial lamb more by voluntarism than by vocation answers, ‘I will believe.’ Tarkovskii, to a hypothetical query about this faith in the non-existence of God, perhaps would respond in the same manner. For Buttafava, Tarkovskii seems to be desiring to find God even when part of him resists it.
In total contrast to Nostalghia, God is never an issue in Dark Eyes (Occhi Neri). His existence or non-existence is of no concern to anyone in the film. This fact reflects the Chekhovian origins of the film and Chekhov’s basically secular view of life. About this ninth film, Dark Eyes (1987) Mikhalkov said to Stella Milior of Premiere in June 1987, that the film is inspired by Chekhov, but that when literary property is carried to the screen it is not a particular work that is important but the attempt to find the spirit and general atmosphere of the author. In the case of Chekhov it is not for one to follow word for word what he wrote but to discover between the words the half-tines, the non-said.
Dark Eyes takes place in 1911, as an Italian waiter, Romano Patroni (Marcello Mastroianni) aboard a luxury boat recounts his life’s story to a recently married middle-aged Russian man, Pavel, who comes into the ship’s dining room before lunch time. Rather than preparing for the meal, Romano regales him with the story of his life, concentrating on the critical events of 1903. The film interrupts it’s long flashback at various points to show us again Paulo talking on the ship to Pavel. Romano ’s narration of events leads into scenes in which we see and hear the characters. Telling of his past, Romano indicates that he was a promising young poor architectural student in Rome who married a beautiful woman, Elisa, who became an heiress. Feeling the disapproval of his mother-in-law and incapable of enjoying luxury without succumbing to ennui, Romano eventually lost all of his plans for the future and filled his time with casual affairs, while never stopping to feel a vague fondness for his wife and their one child, a daughter.
After twenty-five years of marriage, however, in the first flashback scene, we see that economic disaster has hit the Patronis through Eliza’s poor choice of a lawyer in early 1905 and that the family risks losing everything. After a fight with his wife, Romano goes off in a huff to a spa (filmed at Montecatini Terme). Four scenes at the spa then follow, forming a sequence in which Romano falls in love passionately for the first time since he met Eliza in the 1880s. In the first of them, Romano’s friend arrives with her husband at the spa and points out to him a Russian woman who is sitting with her back to him. Tina tells him that this time he may really have pushed Eliza to the point of non-reconciliation. In the next scene, Romano, pretending to have an ailment that keeps him from walking, introduces himself to the Russian woman, Anna, as he hobbles around the spa. The first word of Russian that he learns is the word for “little dog,” as the dog is her companion and her husband is in Russia. The following scene shows Romano entering a mud bath to retrieve Anna’s hat, blown off by the wind, and as he brings a flower out of the pool of mud, we realize how deeply he has fallen for her. In the fourth spa scene, Romano finally one night declares his love for her. The subsequent (fifth) scene presents them the morning after they have slept together and he is eating a watermelon. It is deliberately reminiscent of Heifitz’s 1960 film of the “morning after” scene in Chekhov’s “A Lady and a Dog.” However, later in the day, when Romano comes to her, he finds from the spa’s maid that Anna has left the spa suddenly. He has only a letter in Russian from her, one that he can’t read, as the only Russian word that he knows is “sobachka.” Each of the scenes is interrupted by brief shots of Romano talking to Pavel.
After the ending of the spa sequence, the next scene shows Romano having a Russian woman at the university in Rome translating the letter for him. He finds out that Anna loves him every much, but, full of fear of the unknown, she has fled back from the love for which she longed to her husband whom she dislikes. Romano resolves to go to Russia ostensibly to get a contract to set up a Russian manufacturing plant for Manlio’s unbreakable glass. We see him in Russia first in St Petersburg, then in Sistoev, where he encounters Anna. They meet in her husband’s house by chance, for her husband turns out to be the official with whom Romano discusses the glass-making plant. They declare their love again in a barn surrounded by chickens. Romano swears that he will come back. However, in the last scene, after the last intercutting of shots of Romano with Pavel, we see Romano back in Rome. Eliza is selling the house and is very upset. She has found Ann’s letter and asks him to tell her the truth about it, but he is too cowardly and says that he had no love affair. So Eliza takes him back.
Finally, as the frame story close, Romano tells Pavel that she got an inheritance and they do not have to sell the house or lose their elegant life after all. At this point we discover that Pavel has married Anna, who fled her husband. He persisted and after a half dozen times she agreed to marry him even though she was only fond of him. He is very happy. We see Anna on deck as Pavel comes to tell her to get ready for lunch, and we do not know if Romano stays to meet her again.
The story actually has a double frame. Surrounding the encounter of Romano and Pavel are the beautiful credit sequences. In the first, we see a ship in a series of woodcuts tinted in red. The ship metamorphoses itself into Romano’s workplace. At the film’s close we are left with the red sun going down over the fields of Russia. It was through these fields that Romano had passed with the veterinarian and his daughter on the way back to St. Petersburg as he planned to go to Rome to pack up and leave it for good.
One of the great successes of the film is its evocation of the passage of time. In the scene in which Romano is still in Rome with his wife Eliza, there are several remarkable moments. The gathering of the family on the villa’s lawn for a photograph reminds us that the moment caught in the photograph can never be recaptured in a later date. After Romano goes inside the villa, Mikhalkov gives us several beautiful tracking shots of him, pursed by Eliza, Tina and Manlio. These actions transpire during the time that a concert is going on in the other room.
The time for the performance of a musical piece also reminds us of the duration of natural time when Romano at the baths sees Eliza for the first time. We can determine how long this initial experience of her beauty lasts for him because it is counterpointed to a woman singing an aria from The Barber of Seville. Later in the baths we notice the passage of time with the days getting cooler outside, as indicated by the gusts of wind on curtains.
In Russia the tone of the film changes when Romano tries to interest various officials in the glass-making factory. We get the sense that Romano is simply “marking time” until he finds Eliza. The background music turns into a Nino Rota pastiche score, which drowns out the words of the officials while Romano is hurries from one appointment to another. However, once he actually finds Eliza again, the music changes, and we are back to the meaningful psychological time of personal encounters, culminating in the scene in the barn.
The final indicator of the inevitable passage of human time is the use of the lullaby remembered by Romano from his childhood days. He thinks of it when he passes through the Russian steppes, and the last shot of the film closes with the sound of a woman singing it faintly, as we see the landscape to which Romano will never return. The mother’s lullaby reminds us that Romano has never found the total love that he shared with his mother as a child, and much of it has been his fault as he has not known how to look for happiness.
According to Sauro Borelli, the relative fortune of Nakita Mikhalkov (b. 1945) in Italy began with the success of Slave of Love at the Week of Soviet Cinema in Verona in June 1977 and of the Incomplete Piece of Player Piano in Rome in December 1977, based loosely on Chekhov’s longest play, Platonav. These triumphs were followed by a Mikhalkov retrospective in Firenze in 1978. He appeared in 1980 at the Pesaro Festival with his film of Oblomov. Perhaps Mikhalkov was able to feel the pulse of Italian cinema of the time. In Dark Eyes the use of the music of Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus is an obvious counterpoint to Fellini’s use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyres” for the scene at the baths in for the scene in 8 1//2, which, of course, also starred Marcello Mastroianni. This Fellini film is also cited as an influence on Nostalghia by François Ramasse.
Mira Leihm in 1984 wrote that one of the “symptoms of the 1970s crisis in the Italian cinema was a lack of original scripts, resulting from the producers’ fear of backing unproven subjects.” She adds, “In the seventies, as in the early forties, the use of literary adaptions tended to encourage a calligraphic approach to filmmaking.” She characterizes Valerio Zurlinni’s “re-creation of a symbolic atmosphere woven from obsessions and dreams” in her praise for his 1976 adaptation of Dino Buzzati’s novel Il deserto dei Tartari (editor’s note: The Tartar Steppe). Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes can be said to be a continuation of the evocative style of adaptation at its best.
On the Russian side of literary cinema, we should remember that in 1970 Mikhalkov’s half-brother Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii had made a film of Uncle Vanya. ln Russia, “The Lady with the Dog” had splendidly been filmed in a loose adaptation of Heifitz in the mid-1950s, Romm had made Late Blooming Flowers from an early Chekhov story in the 1960s, and an interesting Sea Gull (Chaika) was released in 1971.
Romano is a character who fits both the Russian and Italian traditions. He is the superfluous man on the Russian side and the man suffering from ennui on the Italian side. Ellen Chances wrote in 1978 that although the term “superfluous man” is generally used to refer to the characters from Pushkins’s Eugene Onegin chronologically up to Gorchakov’s Oblomov and Turgenev’s Varzarov, we should consider the “superfluous man” figure as extending through to Dr. Zhivago and probably beyond. She finds. “there are enough examples of Chekhov and the Symbolists to suggest that hints of the theme (of the superfluous man) are hidden within the verbal acrobats of these pre-revolutionary literary figures.”
Dark Eyes is a type of fantasy of Chekhov’s story as if things did not turn out well for the people who met at the resort. In each case the little dog, “who does not bite” provides an opening for conversations between Anna and Gurov. At the end of Chekhov’s story “A Lady with a Dog” there is still hope for Gurov, the unhappy married man has had many affairs and Anna Von Dideritz, who is unhappily married. In the last paragraph of the story from Ronald Hingley’s translation if volume 9 of The Oxford Chekhov, we read:
“Soon, it seemed the solution would be found and a wonderful new life would begin. But both could see that they had a long, long way to travel—and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.”
Unfortunately, Romano does not have the courage to travel the long road, in this case, back to Russia, to his Anna. In Dark Eyes, Romano has no goals for he has no real imagination; he lacks the ability to imagine real happiness. He loafs for years, seducing women at spas to pass the time, and then when he finally has a chance to claim the woman he loves, he throws it all away to return to the ennui of his wife’s villa in Italy.
In Italian poetry we get a sense of the “superfluous man” in one of the great poems of Leopardi, To Count Carlo Pepoli.” According to Reinhard Kuhn, in this poem “Leopardi transforms a traditional treatment of boredom inherent in satiety into a form of enduring and immutable ennui that nothing under the heavens can cure.” Only the imagination can save a man, but it begins to wane in childhood, and “the poet like the count will spend his last days in the contemplation of the bitter truth of wretchedness.” Leopardi writes of this spiritual waste land:
Nell’imo petto, grave, salda, immota
Come colonna adamantina, siede
Noia immortale, incontro a cui non poute
Vigor de giovanezza, e non la crolla
Dolce parola di rosato labbro,
E non lo sgurado, tenero, tremante,
Di due nere pupille…(70-76)
In the depths of his heart, heavy, massive, immutable,
Like an adamantine column, there thrones
Immortal ennui impervious to
Youthful vigor, unshaken by
Sweet words from lips of rose
Or by the tender, trembling glance
Of two black eyes” (70-76)
Those two black pupils, or “dark eyes,” belong to Anna of the trembling glance In Mikhalkov’s film. Romano loses her when he fails to have the imagination to either go through with his project for the glass-making factory or to tell his wife that his existence with her should not be resumed after so many years apart.
We know that it is about eight years before telling his story that Romano left Anna in Russia, and that he had been married about thirty years up to that point. He does seem to be about sixty in the frame narrative of the film. Pavel has not been to Italy before. Yet he is able to communicate quite well with Romano. No Tarkovskian Angst here. The last shot is of a beautiful reddish sunset, and metaphorically it reminds us of the sunset of life, Roman’s life, and of the life of the belle époque. The ability of the rich to move from country to country will come to an end with World War One and set up the barriers of Eastern and Western Europe that Tarkovskii will present as so unbridgeable in Nostalghia.