By Patrick Malone
Near the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia, a man stands at one end of a drained mineral pool, lights a candle, and slowly starts walking across the pool with the candle in his hand. After several steps, the candle is extinguished; he returns to his starting point, lights the candle, and starts walking again. The candle is extinguished again; he returns again to his starting point, lights the candle, and starts walking again. Throughout, he carefully shields the flame from the wind. There is neither dialogue nor music. The camera shot is unbroken for the about ten minutes it takes for him to start walking, return, start walking, return, and finally start again and reach the other end of the pool with the flame still burning. The camera patiently follows him, closing in on him as he reaches his destination. When he places the candle at the other end of the pool, he collapses, just out of the camera’s view.
That scene, especially as I have described it, may seem dull – a crowd-pleaser Nostalghia ain’t - but it is an excellent example of cinema at its purest, which means that it is an excellent starting point for discussing how Catholics should approach watching film.
The American author Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners, argues that the basis of art is truth, and the beginning of human knowledge of the truth is through the senses, though perception of the world, and the senses cannot be appealed to through abstractions – not unlike St. Thomas who doubted. Fiction operates through the senses because it deals with reality: what can be seen, smelt, tasted, touched, and heard makes up physical reality. Fiction must start with the matter of the physical world, not a message floating in the aether.
Moreover, for O’Connor, a fiction writer – but I would submit also a reader, or a film’s viewer – needs to have an anagogical vision which perceives different levels of reality, of the Divine life is expressed and made concrete through the senses. Spiritual reality is present in physical reality.
Finally, O’Connor states:
Some people have the notion that read the story and climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.
People without hope don’t read novels. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have that experience.
Nostalghia embodies what O’Connor is discussing, but in the context of film. The art of cinema, at its most basic, involves cinematography and editing: images and how different images are put together. The images might move, they might be framed in a significant way, they might make use of colour, and so on. They will be put together in a way that might follow a person’s sightlines or juxtapose objects. Then, on top of that, we can start adding sound, music, plot, et cetera. This scene from Nostalghia is pure cinema, in that it focuses intensely on the image, and that makes it an excellent focal point for the discussion of how we are to watch film, particularly how we are to look at the world through the eyes of hope. The scene I described forces us to take a long look at the physical action and to see the meaning inside it. It takes the time necessary to convince us of something through the sense of vision. The camera takes every aspect of the action in, never blinking or missing anything. It teaches us that the act of looking is not merely passive reception, but also the work of seeing the Divine life.
One would think it obvious that film involves the sense of vision, that it makes us look at the world, but so often, film is a sort of entertaining distraction from the world. Instead of teaching us to look at the world, we withdraw from the world by watching a collection of fast-paced, quick-cut, spectacular images. This is, to mirror O’Connor’s language, a refusal to have the experience of taking a long thoughtful look at the world. Along these lines, Mike Pell, Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, recently tweeted that the “single biggest failure” of his career is failing to shake students' belief that the study of literature is “finding ‘hidden meanings’ in a text rather than improving the quality of attention we're giving it.”
As Pope Pius XII concedes in his apostolic exhortations to representatives of the cinema world:
the ideal film is allowed to lead the weary and jaded spirit to the thresholds of the world of illusion, so that it may enjoy a brief respite from the pressure of real existence. However, it should take care not to clothe the illusion with such a form that it is taken for reality by minds which are weak and without sufficient experience. The film, indeed, which leads from reality to illusion, ought then in some way to lead back from illusion to reality with the same gentleness that Nature employs in sleep. That also attracts man, wearied by reality, and plunges him for a short time into the illusory world of dreams: but, after sleep, it restores him refreshed, and as it were, renewed, to the bustle of reality, the reality he is used to, in which he lives, and of which, by his work and his struggle, he must always remain master. Let the film follow Nature in this: it will then have fulfilled a notable part of its function.
Fiction which does not lead one back to reality, which is to say, the difference levels of physical and spiritual reality, as opposed to, say, the distinction between our world and Narnia, may be the entertainment which we want when tired on a Friday night. But that’s different from slipping into the abyss of listlessly binge-watching some inane sitcom for hours on end, only to forget it all the next morning; that’s a problematic withdrawal from the world, an abuse of the art form.
But let’s return to Nostalghia. The man carrying the candle is called Andrei Gorchakov, a Russian writer. He is at the spa of Bagno Vignoni, associated with Pope Pius II and St. Catherine of Siena. A madman called Domenico believes that if he can cross through the pool with a lit candle, he will save the world. Andrei has been a passive person throughout the film, but now, after Domenico has made a desperate prophetic speech exhorting people to pursue peace and then self-immolated, Andrei returns to the pool to do what Domenico could not: carry the candle and – somehow - save the world.
This procession, in other words, is an act of faith. We cannot see its physical effects, but knowing the context, we are drawn into the supernatural drama of the action. It is an action charged with anagogical meaning, which we cannot understand or appreciate if we watch passively, without the eyes of that faith. The sensuum defectui will not see that by themselves. That long look at Andrei’s procession is a school for learning the hope that the Divine life acts in the world. We see the physical reality of Andrei watching and in doing so perceive the spiritual reality of the act of faith.
Of course, my gloss on Nostalghia hardly approaches the experience of actually watching that scene. I can explain it, to whatever limited extent, but I cannot substitute for it. We are often taught that stories have messages; I can think of no way to distill Nostalghia, let alone this scene, into a message, and quite frankly, could I do that the film would be redundant. There is no clear “message” to the film, but that does not mean that it is not profitable to watch. Instead, what literature and film do – more obviously with film - is teach the audience how to look at the world. The experience of watching Nostalghia is to be in a school of learning to see anagogically the Divine Life bursting into the physical world.
Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
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