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How do films embody nostalgia?

A quick look at the most wistful movies in the history of cinema. This is the first part of a series conveying short reviews of movies discussing sorrow, longing and solitude.


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The Voice is the student newspaper run by internationals at KU Leuven. Between 2018 and 2022, The Voice published articles on the Veto website under the The Voice section, combined with translations of Dutch Veto articles. After 2022, the section was renamed to Veto English. Since then, the section has been operated by Veto English staff only.

by Celina Bebenek & Feride Deniz
Contributing Writers

Nostalgia is a sentimental affection or wistful yearning for something from the past. It is a feeling that accompanies many of us often in times when we are separated from our home and loved ones. Nostalgia was explored in several exceptional movies through the history of cinema. It is worthwhile to take a look at these films and to see how cinema has approached this topic. In this article, we will explore selected masterpieces from the history of the cinema, which each in their own way portrays the emotion of longing, let it be for childhood, a lost lover or an abandoned homeland. This is the first part of the series conveying short reviews of movies discussing sorrow, longing and solitude.

Longs Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Director: Bi Gan

Genres: Magical Realism, Romance, Road

Long Day's Journey Into Night is the relatively unknown movie by Bi Gan, which portrays the act of missing and searching for lost love. It starts when the main character Luo (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown, which he abandoned many years earlier. He arrives during his father’s funeral. However, what clearly absorbs his thoughts is the memory of Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a mysterious woman whom he loved and lost a long time ago. The movie follows his journey to find her. Divided into two parts, it presents two steps of the process of missing someone. During the first part of the movie, the narration is blurred and fragmented, which represents the characters' subjective and imperfect memories about lost love. The second part starts after Luo falls asleep in the cinema and offers a more linear, robust storyline. During the second part, Luo can start the more successful search for the person he had lost. For the main character, the reunion with the object of longing is impossible without faith, hope and dreams.

"Dreams rise up and I wonder if my body is made of hydrogen. And then my memories would be made of stone."

Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)

Director: Theo Angelopoulos

Genre: Magical Realism, Drama, Wa, Road

Here comes the Ulysses Gaze. This masterpiece depicts the travels of the main character, a Greek filmmaker called A (Harvey Keitel), through the Balkans, which he abandoned many years ago. A is searching for the undeveloped reels of the film by the Manaki brothers ‘The Weavers’ which he believes is the first film shot in the Balkans. However, this investigation is merely a starting point for the side story on his longing for his home country. A misses his family and his loved ones. He believes that the lost movie clips can give him a sense of reconciliation with the past. However, the movie does not offer any clear answers to the main character. It is nonetheless significant that he believes he can cure his nostalgia with the art of cinema. The movie presents cinema as a symbol of something stable, timeless and that one cannot lose. The narration is fragmented and dreamlike, which represents memories that blur into dreams. The movie has its merit in its oniric narration: mythological motives intertwine with real historic events.

"Who am I if not a collector of vanished gazes"

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Director: Céline Sciamma

Genres: Romance, Drama, Period Movie

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is another movie exploring the notion of nostalgia and dealing with the loss of a loved one. It is a story about an artist, Anne, who receives an order to paint the young noblewoman Heloise. They quickly discover they are in love with each other, and, certainly, cannot be together. The main character paints the portrait of Heloise as a part of her work, but she also does this to remember her. For the rest of her life, the main character reflects on their relationship. The narration is slow and meticulous like a painting and focusing on the small details. However, unlike the two previous movies, the main character is not necessarily actively searching for a past she lost, instead, she understands that she will never reunite with her beloved. At the same time, they are clearly present in each other's thoughts. In the movie, art is present as something that solidifies memories and makes them more robust.

"In solitude, I felt the liberty you spoke of. But I also felt your absence."

Nostalgia (1983)

Director: Andriej Tarkovsky

Genre: Drama

Nostalgia is one of the masterpieces directed by Andrey Tarkovsky during his exile in Italy in 1983. The main character, Andrey Gorkachov (Oleg Yankovsky), is a Russian intellectual. He sets forth on both an internal and an external journey when he visits Italy to carry out research about a Russian composer who committed suicide. According to Tarkovsky this movie expresses not only a longing for the physical home that is far away and out of reach, it also expresses a yearning for the home within ourselves. The movie reflects general sadness about the whole existence of a person who is caught up in nostalgia. As it is shown in the last scene, this existential and spiritual nostalgia arises from the soul’s longing, and its innermost desire for its everlasting home, which lies in the heart of the Divine. Tarkovsky shows this human condition through a mystical and, at the same time, therapeutic experience by touching the most remote corners of the human soul.

“Unspoken feelings are unforgettable.”

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Genre: Coming-of-Age Film, Drama

At last, comes Cinema Paradiso, a tale about missing a childhood lost. The main character, an established filmmaker, recalls his childhood in a small Italian town where he fell in love with cinema. He missed it so much that he did not dare to come back for years. In the movie, childhood is presented as something that has to be abandoned to move forward but the memories of that time remain forever. The movie seems to reflect this in its narration, portraying memories of childhood as more vivid and realistic whilst adulthood appears to be dull and passionless. In the end, the main character understands that it is impossible to leave the past behind altogether. The movie has its merit in portraying how cinema can bridge the gap between reality and memories.

"Living here day by day, you think it's the center of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything's changed"

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ulysses’ Gaze, Nostalgia, and Cinema Paradiso; they all beautifully explore nostalgia. They also portray how characters deal with these feelings through art, literature or cinema. At the same time, these films transcend one possible interpretation. It is highly recommended to watch them and to venture into the exploration of this topic.

Wondering how cinema portrays other emotions? Stay tuned for our other articles about sorrow and solitude in films.

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