Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Letting in the Light

Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia


The prophet foresees the fate of man and the world and, through contemplation of the spiritual, unriddles the events of the empirical world.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Truth and Revelation.


I have heard it said, I forget where, that if all the men and women praying at any given time were to stop then the world would instantly and once and for all implode. How true this is, I do not know, but it gives us pause for thought regarding the value (or lack of value) we place on our everyday thoughts and actions. Which of these truly matter? Which only seem to matter? How do we puzzle out what is real and what is not? How do we differentiate, in our hearts and minds, between temporal and eternal truths? How do we map our personal insights and intuitions onto the wider world? Where is the bridge linking the individual to the community? How do we find it? What does it look like?

This is the exact terrain explored by Tarkovsky in this 1983 chef d'oeuvre, his penultimate film, and his first (of only two) made outside the Soviet Union.

The early eighties were a problematic, paradoxical time for the film-maker. He had emigrated to Italy to escape the stifling, overbearing hand of the Soviet film authorities. The artistic liberty he found there, however, came at an almost unimaginably heavy price - separation from his family and homeland, and a crushing sense of exile, estrangement and alienation.

Nostalghia is soaked (literally) in these themes. The central protagonist, Gorchakov, a Russian poet transplanted, like Tarkovsky, to Italy, finds the West a barren, chilly place. The mist-shrouded beauties of Tuscany and Umbria leave him cold. He is 'sickened' by the tourist trail of churches, statues and ruins, and - as if all that wasn't enough - feels unable to communicate this sense of disconnection to his interpreter, Eugenia, a character, like himself, in search of meaning, depth, communion and connection. It is only when Gorchakov encounters the 'village idiot', Domenico, that the dynamic starts to change and a new, unanticipated light begins, almost imperceptibly at first, to shine.

Domenico is a former Mathematics teacher. His home is a water-logged ruin. He kept his wife and children locked up in the house for seven years because the end of the world, he believed, was at hand. Domenico lives on his own now, the butt of jokes, in the small town of Bagno Vignoni, regarded by the townsfolk as a self-styled, utterly inept prophet. He speaks in riddles and appears reluctant at first to engage with his Russian visitor. Yet Gorchakov, unable to wind down and relax with anyone else, appears happy and perfectly at ease in his presence. To say he 'lightens up' might be putting too strong a spin on it, but he certainly seems more 'himself' in Domenico's house than any other location. A rapport begins to build. Sensing that Gorchakov's attentions lie elsewhere, Eugenia returns to Rome. Domenico and Gorchakov are left centre stage, physically apart yet spiritually together, their fates intertwined, one with the other, and also, in some unspecified yet undeniable way, with that of the 'whole wide world' itself.
Nostalghia is a visually stunning film. Every frame, without exception, is a work of art. Evocative, evanescent images of rain, cloud, moss-covered columns and walls, horses, dogs and even, at one point, a bottle of spilt, spotlessly white milk, follow one after the other like Shakespeare's parade of kings in Macbeth.

For all this, it has to be said that the film can feel hard going at times. The pace, even by Tarkovsky's standards, is pedestrian at best, and the ambience of disconnection and estrangement described above can start to wear the viewer down after a while. The miracle, however, is that by the time the credits roll one does not feel down or despondent in any way. Quite the reverse. Somehow, Tarkovsky succeeds in taking the issues tormenting both Gorchakov and himself onto a higher, clearer level. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, both film-maker and protagonist are wounded, then blessed. Resolution is achieved. Our vision is cleansed; our hearts replenished with faith and hope. A transfiguration has occurred. How? Why? Where? In answering this question (or attempting to answer it) we approach the central mystery of Tarkovsky's art.

'Truth is a quality,' writes the Russian philosopher, Nicholai Berdyaev, in Truth and Revelation (1953). 'For that reason it is aristocratic, as all qualities are. Truth may be revealed to one single person and refuted by all the rest of the world. It may be prophetic, and the prophet is indeed one who always stands alone.'

Domenico is such a prophet. He journeys to Rome and sits on top of the statue of Marcus Aurelius, imploring the bored, listless citizenry to wake up, recognise and respond to the crisis hammering at the gates of the West. Like William Blake, he speaks against careerism, institutionalism, consumerism and one-dimensional, mechanistic explanations of life and the universe. He cries out for intuition, imagination, vision, creativity and openness to the Divine. He acts, for a short time, as a Pontifex - a ladder or bridge between heaven and earth - before backing up his words with a theatrical, spectacularly self-destructive act, which, to my eyes at least (and I may well be wrong) has always seemed more triumphant than tragic.

Before his departure for Rome, Domenico charges Gorchakov with a task - to walk the length of the drained pool at the Bagno Vignoni baths with a lighted candle, protecting it from the winds and keeping it alight until he reaches the further side. The result, in purely cinematic terms, is a lengthy take of hypnotic, mesmeric quality, arguably the most memorable of many such takes in Tarkovsky's canon.

The stakes could not have been higher here. In the director's mind, his whole artistic vision hinged on this one shot. In slightly dramatic style he described it to the actor playing Gorchakov, Oleg Ianowsky, as 'displaying an entire human lifetime in one shot, without any editing, from beginning to end, from birth to the very moment of death. It could be the true meaning of my life and will certainly be the finest shot I ever make - if you can do it, if you can endure to the end.'

Gorchakov does endure. To the end. He fulfils his mission. At a price. But the memory of the flickering, glimmering candle on the far side of the pool burns on and on in our minds, years after walking out of the cinema and stepping forth into the city and the night.

It is strange, how such a pointless, random act, with no quantifiable yardstick to measure its success by, can have such a profound effect. Objectively, It means nothing. It has no disecernable impact on the world. Yet, on a subjective, symbolic level, it means absolutely everything.

It is an act of truth, a statement of intent and a rallying cry, a call to the imaginative and spiritual arms needed to transmute, transfigure and transform the base metal of contemporary Western society. It points beyond, bridging the gap between the secular and sacred, and bringing that extra, unquantifiable, unpredictable element to the table which the world so sorely needs if we are to have any chance of finding creative, sustainable solutions to the ideological and environmental problems currently assailing us.

This is what Truth looks like - truth with a capital 'T' - existential, not (necessarily) dogmatic - a living thing, a live coal, lying within, like the Kingdom of God, and spreading out around us like the lilies of the field. Humankind, however, seems constitutionally incapable of recognising it. That, it seems, is why prophets are sent. To wake us up to this Truth, which, says Berdyaev, 'is not an objective datum but a conquest won by the creative act. It is a creative discovery rather than the reflected knowledge of an object or of being. Truth is not a reality in the sphere of things which falls into man's lap. Truth is the letting in of light into the world, and this light that comes from truth ought to be spread abroad.

'All men should have, more and more, the idea of truth as the letting in of light, for their interpretation of it is always exposed to the danger of becoming hardened in rigidity, ossified and benumbed. This is not the light of abstract reason. This is the light of the Spirit.'

Our world, here and now in 2014, calls out for nothing less. When are we going to start letting in the light?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home