IT TOOK TWO FALSE STARTS and a few impromptu naps over three days, but I have now have seen all 206 minutes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev,” and although I don’t have another three and a half hours to give Tarkovsky right now, I’m ready to watch it again, which is to say I can’t stop thinking about it.
Set in the first 12 or so years of 15th Century Russia, and ostensibly focusing on the country’s most renowned painter of Christian icons, “Andrei Rublev” seems impenetrable even before it starts. And if you read about the film before watching, it becomes even more intimidating.
But I’m here to tell you, “Andrei Rublev” is here for you, and that what at first seems impossibly dense soon reveals itself as not so much arcane as wildly ambitious, a completely ingenuous attempt to tease the infinite out of human experience. More linear than many claim – there is, in fact, an arc, as they say in Hollywood – it nonetheless pores over its seven fragments at the expense of its narrative, which in fact is a slender thread at the center of a large, nebulous insistence that life has a purpose.
Part of the film’s magic is its sense of place. It feels cold and ancient and damp. Much of it takes place in and around ancient Russian cities and temples. The dark, black-and-white cinematography (by Vadim Yusov, who also shot “Ivan’s Childhood” and “Solaris”) has a grainy, unlit verisimilitude; the fact that the camera’s movement is often brilliantly modern is an unsettling dichotomy. The opening vignette of a man escaping vague pursuit in a hot air balloon made of animal hides is astoundingly beautiful, as is the final set piece — the forging of a large church bell. The sacking of Vladimir is remarkable for its largely unfazed portrayal of human brutality. The choreography must have been meticulous, and it is not PETA-approved.
It’s probably not giving anything away to say that Rublev’s purpose is to paint icons. Played with wounded detachment by Anatoly Solonitsyn, Rublev is the heart of the movie but often by omission. Like Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson’s slightly less epic “O Lucky Man,” he is swept away by life, floating down river like a minor character in someone else’s epic. For half of the movie he is almost entirely passive, putting a toe into the water but never getting all the way in. When he does finally act, splitting a soldier’s head with an axe to stop a woman from being raped, he is so mortified that he retreats even further into the shadows, taking a vow of silence and giving up his art.
And this is roughly halfway through the movie. Yet the screen is filled beyond its edges by life. Rublev sulks back to a monastery essentially to avoid people – “I have nothing to say to people anymore,” he says to the ghost of his cynical mentor, Theophanes the Greek – but quickly learns he can’t. Soon he is reunited with a former colleague, Kirril, who forsook his vows in a fit of jealousy over Rublev’s singular talent, as well as the Tatars who helped sack Vladimir. Frail and beaten down by the daily upheaval of medieval Russia, Kirril begs for forgiveness and sanctuary. The Tatars make off with the girl, a “holy fool,” that Rublev had saved in Vladimir.
“To live in the world is to sin,” Kirril says. “I don’t want to sin.”
These are big thoughts and big ideas, and there are no winks or nods.
Kirril is something of an antagonist, but when he tells Theophanes that Rublev often outpaints his heart, he is telling the truth. We know this not because we see Rublev’s work – in fact, we never see him paint and only see his icons in the final few minutes – but because his early presence in the film is defined by inaction. His piety is unencumbered by compassion. He is in many ways a typical artist, and typical young man: self-absorbed and aloof.
Rublev comes to some sort of understanding with himself, the world, and God after watching a teenager, alone and without prospects, bluff his way into a stupendous feat of human ingenuity in the movie’s beautiful final act. Rather than sit alone and die of the plague, the boy is driven to act, to survive with what he has, which in this case is simply a canard. When it’s over, the boy is overwhelmed by what he has achieved, and risked. So is Rublev, who for the first time in the film offers comfort to someone who needs it. It’s in this act that Rublev, too, finally surrenders to the ineffable and accepts his responsibility.
There is more here, of course. Made in 1966, the film makes the trenchant observation that Russia’s growing pains are far from over, and it’s clear why Soviet censors shelved the film immediately after it was screened, despite the fact that someone poured a lot of money into it. A vignette regarding a pagan fertility ritual portrays both the struggle between the spiritual and physical – Marfa’s fecund sexuality doesn’t so much tempt Rublev as confuse and frighten him – and the fact that in the USSR, someone is always, ALWAYS, on your ass. There also is an interesting use of the Jester to explore the two poles of art.
As with any ambitious text, this would be pedantic and, frankly, unbearable, in lesser hands. But Tarkovsky’s aim is true.
“You are a wise man,” Theophanes says to Kirril early in the film.
“If this is true is it a good thing?” he replies. “Isn’t it better to be ignorant and led by your heart?”
Tarkovsky’s ambition is to understand, not preach. Don’t fear “Andrei Rublev.” Embrace it.
Our friends doing God’s work over at Criterion have made this full cut available, really, for the first time on DVD, and it’s available for streaming on Hulu if you subscribe.