In my thoughts I try to come to terms with all this magical power of the sea by telling myself that it never ceases to show me what is possible.
– Paul Valéry, Regards sur la mer (1930)
Franco Piavoli’s Nostos: Il Ritorno (1989) dares a free adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey that stresses the poetic qualities of a work more known (at least in the popular imagination) for its epic values. There are still, in this film, traces of the physical adventure, passages that involve what is often referred to as action (although the more action-driven a scene, the more it is subjected to a minimalistic, quasi-Bressonian approach). It turns out that, for Piavoli, the adventure is, above all, sensorial and psychic.
Nostos is not a film of action in the conventional sense, but a film of forces – forces that play out their battle on the hero’s body. A film of man and landscape that turns the adventure genre inside out while pushing it to the sublime. Of all the films by this director, Nostos is the one that has to keep reinventing itself more radically at every step. Each new place is a completely fantastical new world: with its shapes and colours; its lights and figures; its vibrations, spirits, vapours and sounds. These centres of sensations and impressions take hold of the hero. Lulled by the sea, he is carried away, like a foreigner in his own story.
It is from the sea that Piavoli borrows the floating quality of a film that unfolds in waves of memories and visions, a film that stretches and compresses incidents at will. The same sound that puts us to sleep is the music inside our dream. As in an opium slumber, Ulysses is dragged from island to island. And so are we.
Watching Nostos, we often find ourselves navigating toward an ancient world, one whose stories we have read in books, but whose colours, compositions and motifs we’ve seen in paintings.
A world of lonely ships and misty seascapes. Of gradations of blue. Of experiments with light and saturation.
Piavoli makes us inhabit the myth by seizing its visual and aural qualities.
All stories, all oceans, all ships, all adventures are contained here. In the directness and beauty of these images that resonate so primally.
At times, you stand in awe in front of the sea. A child looking at inmensity.
At other times, those ships, rocks and people are like miniatures in a bathtub, toys in God’s hands.
This abysmal movement of immersion and detachment, of expansion and contraction, is powered, too, by the sea.
Light blue millpond. Aegean sweep. Spitting clouds of foam. Shivering in shades of green. Coloured in wine or blood. Waltzing in cream and silver. Rippling in golden, crepuscular light. Thick and viscous, with the density of petrol.
In Nostos, Piavoli pursues this ever-changing aspect of the sea. A sea that takes delight in its many faces and disguises. A sea that marvels, terrifies and hypnotises sailors.
A sea that is never just water, but water and earth, and wind, and sun, and moon, always dancing together: there’s no magic outside these relations.
From the Edenic sea of the morning, shimmering in serpentine green and blue, where dolphins and seals play. To the sea bathed in orange reflections at the evening hour of spells, whispers and sirens’ chants. To the nocturnal sea during a wicked storm of Epsteinian reminiscences …
Nostos is a film in perpetual passage amongst sea states.
It is from this sea that the corpses of old battles emerge. It is in this sea that the remains of a shipwreck sink.
Filmed by Piavoli in sweeping, aerial views, like a magnificent God of transport, this sea is also an indifferent blue without bottom, swallowing Ulysses’ scream of despair.
At its most beautiful, the sea has a power of drunkenness.
It could drive you mad, this sea.
Alone. Without a boat. In this endless, liquid extension. You must go mad. You must give yourself completely to this fold of the cosmic and the microscopic, where moon and ovum converge.
It is by going adrift, that you are swimming home.