Russian poet Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy) has travelled to Italy for his work, researching an obscure composer who lived there many years ago, and accompanied by a guide, Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) who helps him with the local language. As they reach a part of the countryside where a church is located, Andrei is intrigued, but his companion has difficulty in connecting with it spiritually, though she does try. When a worker there tries to explain what a woman's place in worshipping there is supposed to be, it says nothing to her about her life since it is all about motherhood, but Andrei is becoming increasingly lost in a cathedral of his own thoughts...
Nostalghia was writer and director Andrei Tarkovsky's penultimate film, and his first after leaving the Soviet Union in exile, so understandably he was missing his homeland, hence his protagonist's yearning for it in much the same way. The difference was, Tarkovsky really could not return, and Gorchakov was in essence on vacation, so his endless introspection would likely prompt the response from the less patient viewer, just go home, then! So often did he harp on about the motherland that it became a monomania, not that he was complaining to the other characters, but we were privy to his mental anguish in frequently metaphorical visuals, so were given a lot of it.
For Tarkovsky's legion of fans, this was about as exquisite as he got, presenting the inner workings of his lead character maybe not with utmost clarity, but with a sense of compassion for his pain, little wonder when the poet was essentially the director in all but name, and a flattering stand-in for himself to boot. Reportedly he was unhappy with the results here, but then again, he was such a perfectionist that you would be hard pressed to find him not pointing out the flaws in even his most accomplished efforts, and this was all part of the fun of being an aficionado of the artist - artist was what he was, unquestionably, tackling big subjects and interpreting them with unique imagery.
But whether that imagery would make much of an impact with anyone other than those determined to tune into his wavelength was another matter, and the state of affairs remained that you would be more probably not connecting to Tarkovsky, despite him seeking to depict the most basic of human needs and experiences on the screen. At times in Nostalghia, a title that referred to his own mental ruminations than anyone else's, perhaps, he threatened to veer straight into unintended self-parody: there was absolutely nothing resembling humour here, however, as apparently that would distract from the extreme focus on the ordeal we call life, where even the elements that bring us pleasure are not to be trusted for sooner or later a memory of a time when you were enjoying yourself will be too painful to return to.
The poet's memories of his childhood are what he aches for, and it doesn't help him in his current existence since he is so restricted by them he finds it impossible to appreciate anything good about the present, or even look with optimism to the future, which may as well happen without him. He could be having a bit of a romp with the willing Eugenia yet cannot muster up enthusiasm to talk to her to any great degree, never mind opening himself up to intimacy that could enhance his experiences. As the film worried over the forms and curses of the lead's mental processes, and by extension Tarkovsky's, you either found your heart going out to this lost soul and his barren spirituality, or you threw up your hands and left him to stew in his own juices, as there was no hint he so much as wanted to engage with anyone aside from a local "madman" (Erland Josephson) who locked up his family to protect them from society. Frankly, they deserved each other, yet the final, stunning image and the dedication to the director's mother may prompt you towards pity.