Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Tarkovsky's Exile

I learned in a Guardian obituary last weekend of the death of Russian actor Oleg Yankovsky. This led me to revisit scenes from the two films he made with Andrei Tarkovsky, Mirror and Nostalgia. His appearances in the former are quite limited, given that this is a film which focuses on women. But his soldier returning from war to the country house or dacha possesses a real nobility. His children run through the trees to embrace him, the boy falling headlong to the ground in his eagerness to reach him, in a seemingly unplanned piece of naturalism. Tears fall from the father’s face as he embraces them both, red star badge (a medal? A reward for courage?) prominent above his breast. The scene has an added poignancy when you read that Yankovsky’s own father was an officer in the Red Army who died in the Gulags during Stalin’s reign of terror. Yankovsky also gets to gaze on one of Tarkovsky’s ecstatic floating women, Margarita Terekhova in this case, tenderly stroking her hand as she levitates above their bed, as if he is lovingly keeping watch over a spiritual flight which he cannot himself partake in.

Yankovsky takes the central role in Nostalgia, Tarkovsky’s film of physical and spiritual exile. In long grey overcoat and hair shot through with a patch of pure white, he is the very picture of philosophical Russian weltschmerz (there must be a specific Russian word for this) completely out of place in the sunny Italian landscape. He brings a depth to and creates sympathy for a character who could easily have appeared irritatingly self-absorbed and self-pityingly truculent. The scene in which he wades through a drowned church, drinking and smoking, and meets a young girl (an angel?) to whom he talks in faltering Italian is beautifully played. Yankovsky really seems to be revealing something of his character Gorchakov’s soul.

In the final scene, he carries a candle given to him by the madman/visionary Domenico (played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson) across the drained mineral baths of Bagno Vignoni. Following Domenico’s self-immolation, this act becomes a declaration of hope for mankind, an unobserved act of witness. It becomes vital for him to carry the flame from one end of the baths to the other, as if the very fate of the world depended upon it. Yankovsky manages to convey the importance of this seemingly inconsequential act. At first he looks around with a certain sheepishness, but by the end he is sheltering the flame beneath his coat with the utmost concentration and intensity. Filmed in one slow unbroken take, it is a scene of incredible emotional power. The final image of Gorchakovsky resting by a pond with his dog in front of his childhood dacha (seemingly a locus of Russian nostalgic longing) which we see is nestled within the enfolding walls of a ruined cathedral, a flurry of snow blowing through its spaces, open to the elements, is quite simply one of the most achingly beautiful in all cinema. It serves as a fitting epitaph.

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