Our life, the period, space, and potential of existence, are best expressed through the candle scene in Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.
Our life, the period, space, and potential of existence, are best expressed through the candle scene in Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. In it, a man, played by Oleg Yankovsky, is trying to cross an empty pool without letting a candle go out. Tarkovsky keeps the camera on Yankovsky for over four minutes in a single take, following the character’s every move while lulling the audience into hypnosis. Under his hypnosis, the structure of time, motion, and the plot began to dissolve, and in its place is cyclical pacing, mimicking the constant, meaningless void humanity is trapped in. Essentially, the scene is a metaphor for the never-ending loop of life we are all in, birth, boredom, and death. Tarkovsky put it as such:
“From the moment you say “action” until you say “cut,” what is that? It’s the fixing of reality of time’s essence. No other artform is able to fix time as cinema does. It is a mosaic made with time.”
We are made so aware of time we exist alongside the director’s milieu in this single take. With it moving at the same pace as our own, we are made acutely aware of its snail’s pacing and become overwhelmed at how uncomfortable we are at the parallel. We are in every second, minute, and moment of Yankovsky’s back and forth. This effect is pushed further by the scene directly preceding it when a man sets himself on fire in the middle of a town square.
The pandemic has had the same effect on all of us. Time feels both fleeting and monotonous. We are seemingly rushing through months while living through an epoch. It can be a strange and dream-like feeling. Not unlike the experience which comes from watching a Tarkovsky film. Take any of his seven masterpieces, Nostalghia, Stalker, or Solaris, and each deals with time as a central character. Its presence in his canon impacts and changes his character. It erodes and transcends his landscapes. And it deconstructs the narrative flow of his films away from a point a to point b conventional framework and focuses on the second by second transition in-between.
The poetics of Tarkovsky are imbued with the personal and ethereal. The one-of-a-kind artist created moving paintings. They were mostly silent and still, save for rich tracking shots. He captured every drop of water, the crackling of a fire, or beating heart. This could be referred to as “pure cinema,” as film critics have often eulogized his work. His work was unlike any other auteur because he trusted the camera to capture the real-life machinations behind our unified emotions and desires. As he once said, “If during my work I find that a shot or a take might resemble what has already been done by another great director, I modify the scene to prevent that it may happen.”