A Russian man named Andrei is in Tuscany. Not the beautiful sunny Tuscany we’re used to seeing, but a foggy and rainy one. He is holding a candle, attempting to carry it from one end of a drained pool to the other. In an astounding nine minute long lateral tracking shot, we see his struggle. He doesn’t get too far in his first attempt, and slowly walks back to the beginning of the pool, going to start again. He starts once more. He makes it a little further, attempting to shield the lit candle from the wind. He fails once again, although he’s made it a bit farther. On this third attempt, Andrei is devoting everything he has to keeping this candle lit. On his face is a look of intense concentration, shielding the candle with his coat and acting as if his life depends on this moment. Finally he makes it. He approaches the other side of the pool, and with every step closer, he struggles more. His legs become weak, sweat is on his brow. He carefully sets this lit candle down onto the side of the pool, and promptly dies. This is the final scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. What does this mean? What could it possibly symbolize about our character and his journey? Well, probably nothing if you’re to take the words of the film’s director into account.
Andrei Tarkovsky is widely considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. He was hailed by Swedish film maestro Ingmar Bergman as “the most important director of our time.” His movies are rife with incredible imagery and beautiful storytelling. However, one unique characteristic that separates Tarkovsky from most storytellers is his aversion to symbols and symbolism in his films. Tarkovsky disliked the idea and believed it could ruin the composition of a scene and create a distraction for the audience. This is, by all means, a pretty unusual viewpoint. Symbolism has been an incredibly important part of almost all art since words were first put down to tell a story. So why did Tarkovsky think it was so harmful, and how does it relate to his own work and perhaps other films?
In his memoir Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky goes into a little more depth on this. He talks about Un marito per Anna Zaccheo by Giuseppe De Santis: “…De Santis puts his hero and heroine on either side of a metal gate. The gate clearly states: now the couple are split up, they’ll never be happy, contact is impossible. And so a specific, individual, unique event is turned into something utterly banal because it has been forced to take trivial form.” Tarkovsky is actively detesting the use of this gate as a symbol for the separation of these two people. He elaborates: “The spectator immediately knocks his head against the ceiling of the director’s so-called thought. The trouble is that lots of audiences enjoy such knocks, they make them feel safe… there’s no need to see anything specific in what is happening.” He is saying that including these symbols is, in fact, making an image more literal and taking out any sort of audience participation. This is certainly a view not shared by many. Tarkovsky further explored the idea just a few paragraphs before, speaking on the Kurosawa masterpiece Seven Samurai, and of the final battle scene. The samurai are battling with the bandits in a violent rainstorm and they are covered in mud. One of the samurai is killed, and as he lies on the ground, dead, rain washes the brown mud off of his legs and turns them almost bone white. “A man is dead; that is an image which is a fact,” Tarkovsky says, “It is innocent of symbolism, and that is an image.”
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this stance, I feel it’s important to understand. First, we must examine the idea in the context of Tarkovsky’s own work. I’m going to use my own personal experience with Tarkovsky’s films to hopefully create some sort of context. Tarkovsky is my favorite filmmaker next to Akira Kurosawa, though I’ll admit, I didn’t grow to love his movies as I do now on my first viewing. I watched Ivan’s Childhood, and I recognized that it was a quality film, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. Next was Solaris, which I had much of a similar experience with it. With each new film from this artist I watched, my understanding of his style grew, but I was still equally perplexed by each one. His films contain some of the most beautiful cinematography to ever be put on celluloid, though I couldn’t see how they represented the film’s story in a non-literal fashion.
My revelation came when watching the incredibly beautiful Mirror. At some point, I decided I’d just see what would happen if I turned my brain off. Not in a dumb action movie sort of way, but to turn off the part of my brain that was searching for the symbol and just watch. Just watch. This is where I truly discovered everything Tarkovsky had to offer in his beautiful images. Something important to note about Tarkovsky is that his father was a poet and he loved poetry. The poetry of Arseny Tarkovsky is featured heavily in Mirror. Tarkovsky mentions in his memoirs that he is often irritated by “poetic cinema”. Specifically, many of the preconceptions that come with the idea and that filmmakers attempt to use. However, as much as Tarkovsky disliked this concept, there is no denying that Tarkovsky’s films were all heavily inspired by poetry and poetic form. In fact, it could even be argued (probably much to Tarkovsky’s chagrin) that his films could possibly resemble poetry or music more than the traditional idea of filmmaking. An accurate way to describe this idea is with a quote from Terrence Malick, a man who was undoubtedly inspired by Tarkovsky. On his film The New World, Malick said “I knew it would have a slow, rolling pace. Just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself, figure things out yourself.” I’m sure Tarkovsky would’ve appreciated this.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that this “roll over you” mindset might be the key to what Tarkovsky was trying to show in his movies. While not to say that his films are completely devoid of symbolism, as that is basically impossible, he did his best to not make his images rife with these symbols. And by this, I do not mean that Tarkovsky’s films are literal. Tarkovsky loved using non-realistic images in an almost, dare I say, impressionistic way; preferring to build mood, emotion, and atmosphere through imagery. I want to go back to Mirror for a second. When I made that decision to switch off a purely analytical part of my mind, the images hit me with all their beauty. Specifically, the burning barn sequence. This is a very famous scene in which, with a short one-take, Tarkovsky shows a family watching as their barn burns, unable to do anything except watch and hope the damage is minimal. In Cinefix’s “Top 10 Best Scenes of All Time” video, this sequence is mentioned. I believe the narrator sums up the feeling pretty well when he says “We have trouble breaking down why exactly it works… the final tableaux which makes us want to stop analyzing and just feel.” To analyze these moments is futile. To try and explain what makes it great using analysis of the symbols or technical aspects seems fruitless.
When I re-watched Ivan’s Childhood, there’s a dream sequence in which a truck full of apples spills its load onto a beach, where some horses proceed to eat the apples. When I saw this for the second time, I was literally stunned by the intense beauty of it. It’s a simple crane shot, starting with a wide view of the beach and the truck, and then a move onto the apples and a horse’s mouth, all filmed with a long lense. I could never put into words why I adore this scene like I do. Not by explaining the technical aspects, and certainly not by trying to analyze any symbolic meaning this scene might have. In fact, my attempt to look for symbols on my first viewing is what stopped me from recognizing the beauty. I was so distracted in the search for beauty in this dream that I ignored the beauty that was readily available in front of me.
So, we return to Nostalghia and its final scene. As the protagonist slowly carries this candle from one end the a pool to another, no doubt that our minds will naturally try to search for something that this is representative of. There is nothing wrong with that of course. It’s simply the way our minds work, but here is my proposition. If you are a Tarkovsky fan or perhaps someone who’s never cared for his work, I implore you to do what I did. In fact, take this to other movies as well. When watching or reading something new, don’t try to look for something hidden deep in the frame, as you may only hinder your own enjoyment. Symbols are without a doubt an important part of storytelling, but perhaps it is important to regard something not as a puzzle to be deciphered, but just as is. It may sound like I’m calling Tarkovsky’s films only beautiful on a shallow level, but I hope you can see the image of the barn burning down and understand just what this beauty I speak of is and why these images are important.