In Search of Faith

"To the man who saw an angel"

(The inscription on Tarkovsky's grave at the
cemetery Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois near Paris)

1

Solaris was my first Tarkovsky film. This was back in the 1980s. I remember that above all I wanted to see an adaptation of the outstanding work by Stanislaw Lem but instead I came into contact with something completely different. Incomprehensible at first but insuperably engrossing, opening doors to a new, unknown until now yet tangibly real world of art. I left the show lost in my impressions and over the next several days the film's most thrilling frames kept reappearing before my mind's eye. The drops of rain falling into the teacup, the movement of the grass under water, the trees in the morning fog, Brueghel's painting meticulously examined and accompanied by Bach's choral prelude, and many others. As it often happens, I was looking for one thing and I found something else, something incomparably greater.

One of the monologues, delivered by the astronaut Snaut, eventually became something like a life credo for me, forever ending any interest in science-fiction on my part. The character in the film, played beautifully by Yuri Yarvet, in a calm but very expressive voice says that man needs man and that all mysteries of the cosmos stand in no proportion to the depths of human soul. The power of these words multiplied by the inimitable magic of Tarkovsky's cinema and the actor's personal charm is what I can recall vividly to this day.

2

I think Nostalghia is Andrei Tarkovsky's best film. This cinematographic work is noticeably gentler and somehow more lyrical than his other films. This is probably due in part to Oleg Yankovsky in the main role and partially to Tarkovsky's co-screen writer Tonino Guerra who worked with Federico Fellini. The hero of Nostalghia is more ordinary, more understandable and simpler than most of other Tarkovsky characters with perhaps one exception: Kris Kelvin, the astronaut in Solaris. Yet Kris finds himself in a situation that's completely fantastic and because of this our ability to participate in his experiences narrows appreciably. But nothing stands in the way to imagine ourselves in the situation of Andrei Gorchakov, the poet in Nostalghia. After all it is possible to experience nostalgia even without leaving one's native land. For us nostalgia is yearning for the "genuine" image of our homeland, it's the pain caused by our love for the native land and at the same time by our hostility toward it. We know that we have reasons to feel close to our homeland but we are unable to really love it, contemplating its horrifying depravation. The most powerful and distressing kind of love, one that keeps tormenting and agonizing us, is the impossible love, love-despair, love-pain, love-pity.

Andrei Gorchakov is yearning for something he has power neither to express nor explain, nor do something worthwhile for his love's sake. He seeks to express his feelings, he searches for an action able to absorb full force what he is enduring. As an educated and rational man he wants his action to have at least some practical meaning. Domenico, a former mathematician, a striking example of a "strange" character in Tarkovsky's films, somehow attracts, pulls Andrei in, but also repels him with his dubious logic. (The characteristic example of Domenico's non-standard logic — his conviction that unity added to unity again yields unity — is the polar opposite of Western individualistic ethics.) Andrei is asking himself for what purpose would one want to walk across an empty pool with a candle in one's hand, what could this accomplish. Gorchakov is a wholly modern man and he does not believe in demonstrations and ritual actions. However, Domenico's horrible death in flames at Rome's Capitol Hill in full view of the indifferent passerbys forces Andrei to return again to the absurd last will of the mad suicide and understand that the point is not at all in the ritual, not in the symbolic act — the point is in himself, in his split conscience. Even a useless act, it would seem, can bear its spiritual fruit, bring warmth, melt ice within the soul, lift a burden up from one's shoulders. The not so easy, as it turns out, journey across St. Margarita's pool became Andrei's last action on earth, completed in the name of his own tormented soul.

3

And here again one wants to think about Tarkovsky. About his love for apocalyptic imagery and wild conversation. And about connected with all this his affinity to Dostoyevsky. Tarkovsky's characters are clearly more emancipated, tired, sceptical, and indifferent as befits people living at the end of the millennium, in the century which "presented" humanity with decades of unimaginable nightmares. The horror of those years was left behind and yet the poet Gorchakov is so indifferent to the unearthly beauty of Italy (and, by implication, to other people) that this alienation drives his preoccupation with "the accursed fundamental questions". He already knows that these questions cannot be resolved and they keep tormenting him God knows why but there is no escaping them. It's impossible to return to the luxury of a bored traveller's sweet slumber. The careless manner with which Gorchakov lets the unfinished cigarette drop to the Italian pavement — it's a significant detail bringing to one's mind the untranslatable verse from the celebrated rock musician: "Jesus doesn't want me for a sunbeam". As Jonah of the Old Testament could not escape his prophetic mission behind the seven seas, so the one whose cheerfulness was not pleasing to Jesus could not run away from his anguish.

Tarkovsky's characters are engaged in their neverending dialogue with Dostoyevsky's heroes. They search for peace and faith in the situation where everybody knows that God is dead but nobody remembers anymore that He rose again. The glad tidings dissolved in the darkness of the ages. "And I swore that if I manage to travel from my native empire, first thing I shall go to Venice, stay in a ground floor room of some palazzo so the waves from the passing boats would splash in my window, write a couple of elegias, extinguishing cigarettes into the damp stony floor, I'll cough and drink, and when the money is about to run out instead of buying the train ticket I'll buy a tiny Browning and blow my brains out right on the spot, unable to die in Venice from natural causes." This is not Gorchakov writing but Brodsky whose body is resting at the cemetery San Michele in Venice... but don't these words ring in harmony with the spiritual condition of the hero of Nostalghia?

In a manner similar to that of his hero and of Brodsky, Tarkovsky died far away from his motherland, in Paris...