Tarkovsky in Italy
"We've reached a time when we must declare open warfare on mediocrity, greyness and lack of expressiveness,
and make creative inquiry a rule in cinema."
Source: Sight and Sound, Winter 1982-1983, p. 54-56. All rights are
reserved by Sight and Sound
and The British Film Institute (BFI). The article is reproduced by Nostalghia.com with
the kind permission of the Sight and Sound Publishing Manager.
"I am starting work on my new film at the end of September ,
and I don't quite know how to cope with it," Andrei Tarkovsky said.
"It is being produced by RAI and Gaumont, in collaboration with Sovin
Film in Moscow, and it has taken three and a half years to reach the
point where I am now. I already feel as if I have shot the film I
don't know how many times. It's difficult to remain fresh. In Moscow
I never had to think about money because I didn't have to go out
looking for it; but now I know how it feels to be in that situation,
and it's very difficult to remain yourself. My films have always been
the films I wanted to make. I haven't experienced my Italian colleagues'
terrible difficulties. In fact, though, I am working under very good
conditions. My screenplay has already been drafted, so that's a thing of
the past, which means I am inclined to modify it during shooting, as I did
in my last film Stalker. The problem is that I have never had
enough time for the editing. I hope I will this time, since it doesn't
really cost anything."
Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia, scripted by Tonino Guerra, regular
collaborator with Antonioni and more recently with Rosi, is finally under way.
Using an Italian crew and the actors Oleg Yankovsky, who was in Mirror,
Erland Josephson and Domiziana Giordano, the film is the first by a Russian director
to be made for European television. It will cost some £500,000 and will be shot
in colour on location in Tuscany, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Milan, Venice, Ravenna and
Moscow. A spring release is planned with television screenings in 1984.
Tarkovsky describes Nostalghia as "a simple love story." Andrei Gorgiakhov
(Yankovsky), a Russian university teacher, comes to Italy for the first time to
see the architecture on which he has for years been lecturing. He develops an
unrequited affection for his interpreter and guide (Domiziana Giordano); and he
discovers a type of alter ego in Domenico (Josephson), a Tuscan professor
of mathematics, who is regarded as a madman because he believes the world is coming
to an end.
At a RAI press conference in Rome to announce the start of production, Tarkovsky
had this to say: "Nostalghia is about the impossibility of people living
together without really knowing one another, and about the problems arising from
the necessity of getting to know one another. It's very simple to make acquaintances,
much more difficult to arrive at a deeper knowledge of another person. Then there
is an aspect of the film which is less evident on the surface, concerning the
impossibility of importing or exporting culture, of appropriating another people's
culture. We Russians can claim to know Dante and Petrarch, just as you Italians
can claim to know Pushkin, but this is really impossible — you have to be of the
same nationality. The reproduction and distribution 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.
"In the film, the interpreter Eugenia asks, 'What do you have to do to
understand another people?' And Andrei replies, 'Destroy the borders.'
It's a complex global problem which is either resolved on a simple level
or not at all. On a simple level it can be resolved by a child, but on
a more complex level it involves self-understanding. Andrei tries to
unload these problems on his alter ego the madman. Andrei is
searching for the truth and at times feels it is useless
to teach something he doesn't know at first hand. In the madman he
finds someone who is convinced about his actions, who claims
to know how to save the world and acts accordingly. Domenico is
like a defenseless child who acts without reflection, and so in a
way represents what is missing in Andrei."
The character of Domenico was inspired by a newspaper story which Guerra
came across after he had already partially drafted the screenplay.
It was, Tarkovsky said, a lucky find which synthesised an important aspect
of the film. "Guerra is a poet of rare talent, capable of
making great discoveries. Luckily I work in the cinema, whereas he is
a poet, so I don't have to envy him." Tarkovsky had originally planned
to shoot a considerable portion of the film in Moscow, but agreements
with Sovin Film broke down and he had to halve the footage earmarked
for the Moscow scenes. "Destiny gave us a hand. The house we
found in Tuscany is much more interesting cinematically than
the Moscow locations, and I'm very glad to be able to expand this
little corner of Russia in Italy."
Does water still obsess Tarkovsky? "Water is a mysterious element,
a single molecule of which is very photogenic," Tarkovsky said. "It can
convey movement and a sense of change and flux. There will be a lot
of it in Nostalghia. Maybe it has subconscious echoes — perhaps
my love of water arises from some atavistic memory of some ancestral
Questioned about a possible conflict between the "pessimism" of his
films and the "optimism" of the Italian way of life, and about the
difficulties Italians find in understanding his films, Tarkovsky said:
"I am not without optimism. My film is, after all, a love story
which is relatively simple and comprehensible. But at the same
time I've tried to get to the bottom of the more
profound and disturbing aspects beneath its surface.
Pessimism arises from worry and the complexity of the problems
one poses oneself. These problems can't simply be resolved
by a joyous attitude to the world. I'm interested in characters
who are worried about the state of the world, and perhaps this
sometimes involves too much complexity.
"Cinema is an art form which involves a high degree of tension,
which may not generally be comprehensible. It's not that I
don't want to be understood, but I can't, like Spielberg,
say, make a film for the general public — I'd be mortified
if I discovered I could. If you want to reach a general
audience, you have to make films like Star Wars
and Superman which have nothing to do with art.
This doesn't mean I treat the public like idiots,
but I certainly don't take pains to please them.
I don't know why I'm always so defensive
in front of journalists — I might need you
one of these days, especially if my film gets
the same kind of distribution as Angelopoulos'!"
Tarkovsky expanded on his ideas at the conference Cinema Thieves —
International Intrigue held at the Centro Palatino in Rome on
9 September 1982. He presented clips from Seven Samurai,
Mouchette, Nazarin, and La Notte, the films
which had made the most incisive impression on him,
as opposed to having influenced him.
ANDREI TARKOVSKY: "The problem of influence, influx or reciprocal
activity is complex. Cinema doesn't exist in a vacuum — one has
colleagues and so influences are inevitable. So what is influence or
influx? The artist's choice of the environment in which he
works, the people with whom he works, is like his choice
of a dish at a restaurant. As for the influence of Kurosawa,
Mizoguchi, Bresson, Buñuel, Bergman and Antonioni on my work,
it is not influence in the sense of 'imitation' — from my
point of view this would be impossible since imitation has
nothing to do with the aims of cinema. One has to find one's
own language through which to express oneself. To me influx
means being in the company of people whom I admire and esteem.
"If I notice that a frame or a sequence echoes another director
I try to avoid it and modify the scene. This happens only very
rarely, as for example in Mirror when I set up a frame
in which the leading woman was in a room and her mother in the
next. There was a close-up of the two women, although it was
a panoramic shot and the mother was looking in the mirror.
In fact the whole scene was shot through a mirror, although
the mirror did not actually exist, and the woman was looking
directly into the room. There was only the impression of a mirror.
I realised that this type of scene could have come straight
out of Bergman. None the less, I decided to shoot the scene as
it was, as an acknowledgement of, or nod towards, my colleague.
[See Footnote at the end of the article -Ed.]
"Without the directors I have mentioned, and with the addition
of Dovzenko, there wouldn't be any cinema. Everyone naturally
looks for his own original style, but without these directors
providing a context or background, cinema wouldn't be the same.
Many film-makers seem to be going through a very difficult
period at the moment. In Italy, cinema is in a predicament.
My Italian colleagues, and I'm talking about some of the
best-known names in the cinema, tell me that Italian
cinema has ceased to exist. Cinema audiences are, of course,
a major factor in this. For a long time cinema followed
public taste, but now the public doesn't want to
see a certain type of film, which is all to the good really.
"There are two basic categories of film directors. One consists
of those who seek to imitate the world in which they live,
the other of those who seek to create their own world.
The second category contains the poets of cinema, Bresson,
Dovzenko, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Buñuel and Kurosawa, the cinema's
most important names. The work of these film-makers
is difficult to distribute: it reflects their inner
aspirations, and this always runs counter to public taste.
This does not mean that the film-makers don't want to be
understood by their audience. But rather that they themselves
try to pick up on and understand the inner feelings of the
"Despite the current plight of the cinema, film remains an
art form, and every art form is specific, with a content
which doesn't correspond to the essence of other forms.
For example, photography can be an art form, as the genius
of Cartier-Bresson shows, but it is not comparable to painting
because it's not in competition with painting. The question that
film-makers must ask themselves is, what distinguishes cinema
from other arts? To me cinema is unique in its dimension of time.
This doesn't mean it develops in time — so do music, theatre and
ballet. I mean time in the literal sense. What is a frame, the
interval between "Action" and "Cut"? Film fixes reality in a sense
of time — it's a way of conserving time. No other art form can
fix and stop time like this. Film is a mosaic made up of time.
This involves gathering elements. Imagine three of four directors
or cameramen shooting the same material for an hour, each with his
own particular vision. The result would be three of four totally
different types of film — each person would throw out some
bits and keep others and make his own film. Despite the fixing of
time involved in film, the director can always elaborate his material
and express his own creativity through it.
"The cinema is going through a bad period in terms of aesthetics. Filming
in colour is regarded as getting as close as possible to reality.
But I look on colour as a blind alley. Every art form tries to
arrive at truth and seeks a form of generalisation. Using colour
is related to how one perceives the real world. Filming a scene
in colour involves organising and structuring a frame, realising
that all the world enclosed in this frame is in colour and making
the audience aware of this. The advantage of black and white is that
it is extremely expressive and it doesn't distract the audience's attention.
"You can find examples of expressive modes in colour cinema, but most
directors who are aware of this problem have always tried to film in
black and white. No one has succeeded in creating a different perspective
in colour film or in making it as effective as black and white.
Italian neo-realism is not only important for the fact that it turned
a new page in the cinema by exploring the problems of everyday
life, but also, essentially, because it did this in black and white.
Truth in life doesn't necessarily correspond to truth in art, and now
colour film has become a purely commercial phenomenon. The cinema
went through a period of trying to create a new vision through colour,
but this hasn't amounted to anything. The cinema has become too glossy,
which means the film I am watching becomes quite different for a
person sitting in the other corner.
"The film clips which I am showing represent what is closest to
my heart. They are examples of a form of thought and how this
thought is expressed through film. In Bresson's Mouchette
the way in which the girl commits suicide is particularly striking.
In Seven Samurai,
in the sequence in which the youngest member of the group is
afraid, we see how Kurosawa transmits this sense of fear.
The boy is trembling in the grass, but we don't see
him trembling, we see the grass and flowers trembling. We see a battle
in the rain and when the character played by Toshiro Mifune dies we
see him fall and his legs become covered with mud. He dies before our
"In Buñuel's Nazarin,
we see the injured prostitute being helped by Nazarin and how she
drinks the water from the bowl. The final sequence of Antonioni's
La Notte is 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. It's a unique sequence in which
physical closeness has great significance. The characters have
exhausted their feelings for each other but are still very close
to each other. As a friend of mine said once, more than five
years with my husband is like incest. These characters have
no exit from their closeness. We see them desperately trying to
save each other, as if they were dying.
"When I start shooting, I always look at the films I like, by the
directors I consider to be in 'my group' — not to imitate them,
but to savour their atmosphere. It's no accident that all the
clips I'm showing are in black and white. They are important
because the directors transform something close to them into
something precious. And all these scenes are unique in that they
are not like events in everyday life. This is the stamp of a great
artist, showing us our interior world. All these scenes cater
to the audience's desire by conserving beauty rather than giving
enjoyment. These days it's extremely difficult to deal with this
type of subject, it's almost absurd even to talk about it — no one
would give you a sou. But the cinema will only continue to exist
thanks to these poets.
"To make a film you need money. To write a poem all you need is
pen and paper. This puts cinema at a disadvantage. But I think cinema
is invincible, and I bow down to all the directors who try to realise
their own films despite everything. All the films from which I've shown
examples have their own rhythm.
(Nowadays, it seems, most directors use rapid short
scenes, and directors who use cutting and speed are considered to
be 'really professional.') The aim of any true director is to express
truth, but what do producers care? In the 1940s, there was a survey
in America ranking professions according to stress. This was at the
time of Hiroshima and pilots came out on top. The second place went
to film directors. It's almost a suicidal profession.
"I've just come back from Venice, where I was on the festival jury,
and I can testify to the complete decadence of current cinema.
Venice was a piteous spectacle. To understand and accept a film
like Fassbinder's Querelle requires, I believe,
a totally different type of spirituality. Marcel Carné obviously
accepted it more than I did. I think it's a manifestation of
an anti-artistic phenomenon; its concerns are
sociological and sexual problems.
It would have been profoundly unjust to have given the film
an award simply because it was Fassbinder's last film — I think he
has made much better films than this. The present crisis in cinema
isn't important, however, because the arts always go through periods of
crisis and then there is a revival. Just because you can't make a
film doesn't mean the cinema is dead.
"At its best, cinema comes between music and poetry. It has
reached as high a level as any art form. And as an art form
it has consolidated itself. Antonioni's L'Avventura
was made a long time ago, but it gives the impression of having
been made today. It's a miraculous film and has not aged a bit.
Perhaps it is not the sort of film one would make today
but it still has that freshness. My Italian colleagues are
going through a very bad period. Neo-realism and the great directors
seem to have disappeared. Producers are like
drug-pushers, they only want to make money, but most of them
don't last long. I almost disowned the version of Solaris
which was shown in Italy. But now the company which distributed it no longer
exists, which seems to be the fate of most distributors."
In the paragraph on the shooting of the Mirror scene it
appears that Tony Mitchell somehow have confused Scenes #046-047
and Scene #251 (or thereabouts). The correct rendering of the
paragraph should therefore be:
"If I notice that a frame or a sequence echoes another director I try to avoid it and modify the scene.
This happens only very rarely, as for example in Mirror when I set up a frame
in which the leading character was in a room and her mother in the next.
There was a close-up of the two women: it was a panoramic shot and the woman
(played by Larissa) tried earrings on, and mother was looking in the mirror.
In fact the mirror did not actually exist, but the woman was looking directly
into the camera. So there was only the impression of looking into a mirror.
I realised that this type of scene could have come straight out of Bergman.
None the less, I decided to shoot the scene as it was, as an acknowledgement
of, or nod towards, my colleague." —Nostalghia.com Editors.