How we shot the 'Inextinguishable Candle' episode for Nostalghia
The following piece is excerpted from Sergei Solovyov's book "Assa, and other compositions by the author."
Nostalghia.com wishes to thank the Andrei Tarkovsky Foundation (Moscow), and the Spirit of Fire International
Debut Film Festival, on whose website (spiritoffire.ru) we first read this interesting article.
'I had just arrived in Rome. I was met by Tarkovsky, who I knew only slightly. That in itself was a miracle in those days: I suddenly found myself in Rome — not as a tourist, I had come to work, 'out of professional necessity'. To act not just anywhere, for not just anybody and not 'just to get to Rome,' but for Tarkovsky. He had invited me to play the leading role in Nostalghia, his first 'non-Russian' film, without any screen tests.
After a short and somewhat aimless walk through the narrow side streets of Rome, we finally sat down at a table outside a small cafe on the Piazza di Spagna. It was midday, warm and quiet; spring was in the air.
'Oleg, know what,' began Andrei in a roundabout way. 'I had this idea of filming a man asleep in one continuous sequence, without any editing — from the moment he falls asleep at night to the moment he wakes up in the morning. Imagine what a subtle and grandiose range of human emotions would be reflected on his face in that time! Especially if he dreams.'
'I'll have dreams in the film?' I cautiously inquired. 'Oh, no,' said Andrei and waved his hand, even looking rather irritated at my question. 'This has nothing to do with dreams. Okay, I'll put it a different way. The thing is, could you — yes! yes! — you, Oleg! — display an entire human life in one shot, without any editing, from beginning to end, from birth to the very moment of death?'
'Me...?' I foolishly asked, not knowing what to say. 'I don't really know. Never crossed my mind. You mean, that's what I've got to do?'
'Well, yes,' said Andrei. 'We tried to find you a simple scene to begin with. Since you'll have to act the role in Italian — and that's difficult when you don't know Italian — we chose this scene without words for you, an entire human life from birth to death. In fact the leading character promises a deranged man he will carry a burning candle through the waters of the Saint Catherine pool, and in so doing heal him.'
'Why a candle?' I queried. 'Because of the flame, the unprotected fire. Remember the candles in Orthodox churches, how they flicker. The very essence of things, the spirit, the spirit of fire. Well, as for the pool,' continued Andrei, 'they drained it unexpectedly. Foul-smelling bubbles rise from the ancient lime oozing with mud and slime and burst on the bottom of the pool, then the leading character — you, Oleg — lights a candle — it's a thin, uncertain, weak flame and you cover this flame with your hand, the hand of a strong, grown man. And you walk across the foul bed of the pool, trying not to slip or stumble, and all your will is concentrated on one thing: to save this weak flame, to keep it burning. But it goes out and you return to where you started, and again you light this uncertain, quivering flame, once again you shield it with your palm and set off. You are more than halfway along the path you must cover to bring the miracle into being. But the flame goes out again. You feel your last strength is leaving you and you will be unable to find the spiritual or physical strength to start over again. But you do. You return to the place you already set out from twice before, light the candle again, cover it with your hand and venture out on this endless journey, carefully picking your way. You walk on and carry the candle to the end. Then you leave it at the edge of the pool, understanding that not only has a human life been saved, but that now a hand will always be found to protect the flame when you are no longer there. This is when the leading character understands he has carried out the most important task in his life. He slowly sinks to the foul-smelling bottom of the pool and dies.'
'You see,' and Andrei suddenly changed to the familiar form of 'you' in Russian, 'if you can do that, 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.'
I could hardly speak: this was some 'simple scene'! 'Fine, I'll try, do my best.'
For three days Italian workmen laid rails across the bottom of Saint Catherine's pool under instructions from Tarkovsky. For three days Tarkovsky rehearsed the panorama with the technical crew, as if he hadn't noticed me aimlessly wandering along the edge of the pool. Finally the fourth day dawned — the day for the shoot. They dressed me in a suit, made me up and helped me jump to the bottom of the dry pool, where Tarkovsky was waiting for me.
'You walk from over there, to that point there.' He pointed down the rails. 'This is where the candle goes out the first time. You go back, re-light the candle, and get this far.' Andrei showed me the place I had to get to the second time. 'Here the wind blows it out again. Then you find the strength to return yet again, and the third time you get to the end. No need to rehearse it,' he said, and kissed me. 'Of course I could help you by editing, cut-ins — but there's no need. I feel there's no need. You'll do it. Good luck, good luck. And remember: we've only got one take.'
I heard the command 'Shoot!' as if through water, lit the candle, saw the thin, flickering flame and cupped it with my hand. I carried on right to the end, sank to the bottom of the pool and died. The candle was still alight on the edge. Applause came from every direction. I had done everything I promised him.
Later I heard applause in Cannes, Moscow, Tokyo and Venice, but it wasn't important any more. The main thing was that I found the strength to do everything then, back there.'