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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Nostalghia – Nothing holds a candle to Andrei Tarkovsky

“The question of my immortality is my own business and nobody else’s.”
Søren Kierkegaard


By way of explanation for what follows – When I did my film training with the BBC, I studied the films of some “auteur” film directors from what was then Eastern Europe. (This was in the late 1980s when most of my loyal readers were nothing more than a twinkle in their mother’s eye.) In particular, Sergei Parajanov and Andrei Tarkovsky moved me to embrace film making as a medium for artistic and spiritual reflection and also for social change it must be said.
The insidious cult of post modernism seems to have done away with the kind of filming that Tarkovsky argued for – strongly self referential and consciously using the medium of film drama to make explicit points about the condition of life; the struggle to survive as an artist, the meaning of... art. Art cannot be separate from society, for if it is, it is no longer art. Nostalghia was just such a film. It was made in 1983. (The year that Tarkovsky went into an unhappy exile from Russia.)

Ar imeall an bháis - At the edge of death - comes redemption

I’m standing in an empty church with a lighted candle in my hand. I stopped to let a zephyr go by. Or was it a ghost?
Sense says – You’re spooked because you watched Nostalghia last night and Tarkovsky always got you that way.
Eternity says – Stand and let the air go by. Take your time. You have all the time in the universe and I am with you.

This is the second time I have walked across the echoing, draughty church with a candle in my hand. The first one went out when I had just started my walk.
Sense says – Look. You want to light a candle on your Nana’s birthday. Fine. That’s perfectly understandable. There are no lit candles over by the Mother of Mercy for whom your grandmother had a particular devotion so you have tried to cross the floor of the church with a lit candle and it blew out. There is no mystery.
Eternity says – This was meant to happen.


I plough on through the pews and into the central aisle, my second candle still ablaze. I turn to make some kind of acknowledgement to the altar, the tabernacle, searching for some kind of exposition. My mind goes back to Tarkovsky.
Don’t – says Sense.
You’ve no choice - says Eternity.

He strikes at the heart with each slow, tortuous foot of the film. Who. Am. I? Who do I remember I am? My candle dips and I turn back slightly to protect it from the wind. His films conjure real dogs that were supposed to be a dream. Andrei the Russian émigré is on the bed and dreams the dog but that dog is not being directed. Tarkovsky tortures time and space, himself and his audience. I turn back towards the Mother of Mercy and my candle goes out.
Sense says – Look Paul get a grip. It’s quarter past nine on Tuesday morning. Put the candle back. Walk out of the church and come back tomorrow or some other day.
Eternity says – That is not going to happen,

Eternity is right.

Picture of man with candle

I go back to make a third attempt and by now I am convinced that there is a reason that there is nobody else in the church. This church always has a smattering of the faithful, the odd fanatic and the penitent.

I go back and light my third candle. In Nostalghia, a man must walk across a Roman bath, waist high in water and holding a candle which must not go out. It must not go out. On the third attempt…
Would ye stop – says Sense.
Wait now and compose yourself for what is to come – says Eternity

There is no common sense in the fact that my candle hand began to shake as I walked gingerly on the eggshells of my feet. I did stop and I did hold my breath. I was hearing Verdi and was now a film within a film, underpinned by a legend from the hot healing springs of Bagno Vignoni in Tuscany. It is here where Nostalghia was filmed and where the man walks across the pool. The pool doth heal the sick and make great wonders. My third candle is still lit and I am now in the middle of the church again. I do not want to turn but must turn and even genuflect and the candle twists and dips but stays aflame. Grimly.

Tarkovsky’s pool was named after St. Catherine of Siena, not only the joint patron saint of Italy along with St Francis of Assisi, but also one of the most renowned correspondents and essayists of her day. She will also protect from the dangers of fire. My candle is still lit and I recall how in the film, the local lunatic persuades Andrei to accept the challenge of walking across St Catherine’s pool keeping the candle alight. For by this holding and protecting of the flame comes redemption. Two times it goes out whilst the lunatic goes to Rome to self immolate. Andrei makes it on the third occasion but the effort of will and spirit destroys him and he collapses.

On his deathbed, Tarkovsky said – “Time for a new direction.”


Now, just like the final scenes in the film, I am holding this pathetic candle walking across a bog and a huge, roofless Roman church in ruins all about me. Water rising.
Sense says – I am not saying anything else until you are out of here Larkin.
Eternity asks – Is this time for a new direction?

Within touching distance of the Madonna and the candle which is to be lit, someone enters the church and the backdraft reduces me to a flicker. But this I will do.

I lit the candle for my Nana and I knelt and I wept. Not because I had struggled to offer a prayer but because I had a faced a fear in myself and gone beyond it to the safety of some eternal shore I have not yet charted. Other people may believe my story or they may not but will they deny my truth that this was a life changing experience? There is another more fundamental truth. After this and other similar experiences in my life I join hands with my great mentor and inspiration Søren Kierkegaard – nobody can tell me what I do and do not belive. Find your own path to happiness good readers and may all the angels in heaven, your God, spirit or good karma, or whatever moves you to strive beyond yourself, be at your shoulder at every step of the way.

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Title: Nostalghia – Nothing holds a candle to Andrei Tarkovsky
Date posted: 27 Jan '10 - 18:45
Filed under: General
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