Each of the three main characters - Andrei Gortchakov, a Russian poet (Oleg Yankovsky); his beautiful Italian interpreter, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano); and a local eccentric, Domenico (Erland Josephson) - is attempting, consciously or instinctively, to fill a void in their life.
Gortchakov, in Italy to research the life of an 18th century Russian composer, is suffering terribly from homesickness - his thoughts and dreams often turn to his wife and home. His interpreter makes romantic advances toward him - but he's so fixated on his wife that he doesn't even realize what she's doing. When it occurs to him - she makes it pretty obvious, baring a breast to him in his hotel room and asking 'Is this what you want...?' - he's visibly staggered, but remains sympathetic and caring towards her. The parallels between his life and that of his subject are many - and as the film progresses, he seems to become increasingly aware of them. This realization leaves him feeling emptier still - and this could be a big factor in his acceptance of the task assigned to him by the madman Domenico. In fulfilling his promise, Gortchakov is perhaps the most successful of the three characters in his quest to fill the unnamed void within him.
Domenico bears a great guilt. Long considered to be mad, many years in the past he sequestered his wife and children within their home in a desperate attempt to protect them from what he saw as the imminent end of the world. Suspicious neighbors alerted the authorities, who broke down the door and freed the family, who had not been outside for seven years. In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes ever committed to film, we see Domenico, addled, gingerly pursuing his young son down a pathway. The guilt that Domenico feels over this episode weighs heavily upon his shoulders for the rest of his life. In a symbolic act of contrition, he attempts to carry a lighted candle across a pool - a seemingly simple task, made difficult by the heat rising from the waters and the air currents. His neighbors, considering him to be unstable, think he's about to drown himself, and prevent him from completing the act. When he meets Gortchakov - perhaps because he senses the emptiness in the soul of the poet - he asks him to accomplish this for him. By giving the Russian the task of conveying the candle across the pool, he frees himself of his own promise, allowing him to move on to what he sees as the ultimate act of repentance - and at the same time, gifts the opportunity to the poet to commit a holy act by fulfilling a promise, which allows Gortchkov the chance to free his own aching spirit.
Eugenia, the translator, has the least understanding of her own needs. She, too, feels a void in her life - but she seems to think that she can fill it sexually, by 'finding the right man'. When Gortchakov rebuffs her advances, she abandons him and takes off to Rome, to another man. We see this man only once in the film - while she talks on the phone to Gortchakov - and he seems distant, regarding her coolly, if at all. It's easy to surmise that this is just one more fruitless, unfulfilling stop on her quest.
Visually, Tarkovsky has done his usual, unequalled best in committing his ideas and ideals to film. His work - here and in all of his films - is, I've come to believe, without peer. From the opening images of the fog-shrouded Italian countryside - to the stunningly beautiful photography inside the church, candle-lit - to the hotel - to the spa - every scene has the ability to take the viewer's breath away, and, more importantly, to make the viewer think. Tarkovsky's views of how humans are isolated from each other - and from themselves - by the technology and the cities we have built is underscored by the scene in Rome, where Domenico has traveled for a 'demonstration', to air his views and give his public confession. He is positioned atop a statue, high above a piazza - the camera angle reveals a wide, low-angled set of marble steps. One would perhaps expect to see a milling throng on these steps - but Tarkovsky instead places only a dozen or so people there. The space between them, in this wide expanse of marble and edifice, simply and eloquently underscores the theme of human isolation.
NOSTALGHIA - like all of Tarkovsky's work - is a film that should be viewed multiple times. Each viewing will reveal new discoveries and insights. His work is visionary.