Years ago I saw a film by the unique, mysterious cinema artist Andrei Tarkovsky that included an early scene at an Italian hot springs town. What was immediately arresting about the scene was the film’s image of the town, which instead of a the usual piazza seemed to have a vast hot spring pool at its center. As I seem to recall, surrounding this ancient, steaming pool was an arcade through which two of the film’s characters, one native Italian and the other expatriate Russian, walked and talked as they attempted to connect emotionally. A dripping, gurgling sound followed them, the stone looked cracked and unclean, the light was dim, and instead of bringing to mind ideas of rebirth and health the pool side sequence left me with a clammy sensation of sickness, and the lingering, lush scent of mold. The film itself, like most of Tarkovsky’s works, was taxing, alternately appealingly poetic and exasperatingly incomprehensible. But I liked it; it is a rare example of slow film, so to speak. And I find value in slow on the few occasions when I practice it.
Tarkovsky traded in themes of existential alienation (see: Solaris), and “Nostalghia” is resonant with themes of rootlessness, the incompatibility of different cultures and the quintessential Russian obsession with the inner soul. The characters attempt love, and fail; the villagers attempt health by bathing in the pool but age anyway; local women attempt fertility by praying to the Piero della Francesca “Pregnant Madonna” but the cure is not certain. The male lead suffers from terminal doubts on the meaning of existence.
I know Italy pretty well, and have long pursued its many hot spring sites with fervor, but I’d never known of such a weird place, and for a while imagined it didn’t even exist. The Internet was way off into the future at that time and a search for “Tarkovsky, Nostalghia, hot springs” was not an option. Then, several years afterwards, an Italian magazine featured the town and its drenched piazza, on a sunny day, on its cover. So it was real after all.
And now it looks like I’ll finally get there. It turns out the bath is named after St. Catherine, my namesake. I’ll erase the dank image with the non-existential happiness of my daughter’s company as we let the hydromassage turn our limbs to jelly. But Tarkovsky’s unanswered questions will stay on my mind.