Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia as a Cinematic Candle
I’ve seen it over a dozen times, and Nostalghia‘s late, nine-minute shot of a homesick Russian poet carrying a candle across a pool in an Italian spa in tribute to his mad, suicided friend, still devastates. I always read the scene in Tarkovsky’s penultimate film as the poet’s final ritual, a symbolic act carrying its own final, life-or-death meaning. But the struggle to keep the flame lit while poised between wind and water is obviously a metaphor for life itself, which is how actor Oleg Yankovsky described it in a quote included in the text for a fascinating video based on the scene by Kevin Lee over at Fandor.
According to Yankovsky, when he first met Tarkovsky to discuss the filming, the director asked the actor to help him fulfill a grand idea to “display an entire human life in one shot, without any editing, from beginning to end, from birth to the very moment of death.” Tarkovsky visualized life in the form of a candle. “Remember the candles in Orthodox churches, how they flicker. The very essence of things, the spirit, the spirit of fire.” And so the act of carrying the candle across the stagnant pool was nothing less than the effort of an entire lifetime encapsulated in one gesture. “If you can do that,” Tarkovsky challenged Yankovsky, “if it really happens and you carry the candle to the end–in one shot, straight, without cinematic conjuring tricks and cut-in editing—then maybe this act will be the true meaning of my life. It will certainly be the finest shot I ever took—if you can do it, if you can endure to the end.”
The recognition of the candle metaphor inspired Lee, who has created a beautiful video that exists as both formal commentary on the film and its own work of art. He’s taken the film’s 123 shots, isolated them, and then arranged then in a single image that flickers as the candle slowly extinguishes.
Here is where the film’s other cinematic metaphor, the candle, helps in further illuminating Tarkovsky’s cinema. What if we were to see every shot in this film as a cinematic candle, flickering its existence away until it goes out? That sense of fragility, each shot at the brink of being extinguished, gives a special pathos to the film, one that echoes Tarkovsky’s vulnerable state when making this film. Within the first forty seconds, half of the shots are over; that’s a far longer average than in most movies, but in Tarkovsky’s world it feels like a mass slaughter of images. By the one-minute mark, a third of all shots remain; by two minutes, we are down to seventeen. Remarkably, about half of those shots make it to the three-minute mark. These are the signature shots of the film, and it would be fascinating to see what kind of movie could be assembled just of those eight epic long takes.
Nostalghia, which is one of my favorite films, is currently streaming at Fandor.