This article was originally published in Metro 110 (1997).
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Andrei Rublev (1966 USSR 146mins) 35mm
Source: Film Alliance Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Scr: Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Tarkovsky Phot: Vadim Yusov Art Dir: Yevgeni Chernyaev Mus: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
Cast: Anatoli Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev
We see a man who appears, but not the man who was expected, a man who is here by mistake – so there is a missing man, but it’s not that one; but before disappearing quickly from the diegesis, he says one thing, that words betray thought, that images and sensations are much more powerful.
– Olivier Assayas (1)
For Andrei Tarkovsky the journey of Andrei Rublev from conception to screening was long and difficult. In 1961, even before he had finished his first feature film Ivan’s Childhood (1962), he submitted a proposal to the studio for a film on the life of Russia’s greatest icon painter, Andrei Rublev. Tarkovsky and his co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky worked on the script for over two years, and this script came to be known as ‘The Three Andreis’. A premiere screening for the film industry at Dom Kino in late 1966 met with mixed critical reaction, and the film did not get a public release. In 1969 it was requested for the Cannes Film Festival and was finally able to be screened in an out-of-competition, unofficial screening where it was awarded the International Critics’ Prize. But its notoriety continued and a Russian release was further delayed until 1971. (2) Yet for a film so frequently in danger, it has subsequently been recognised as one of the cinema’s masterworks. In a recent article on Tarkovsky, Julian Graffy notes that the Russian journal Kinovedcheskie zapiski (Notes in Cinema Analysis) asked 27 critics from around the world to list the twentieth century’s 12 best films ‘from the point of view of history’ and ‘from the point of view of film criticism’. Andrei Rublev was in the first composite list, both Rublev and Mirror (1974) in the second. (3)
Andrei Rublev can be read as an allegory of Tarkovsky’s own struggles as an artist in Russia. This reading is encouraged by Tarkovsky’s own theories of aesthetics and ethics as detailed in his book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. (4) Yet while this particular film is based on an actual historical figure, it is much more than just history, biography or even autobiography. Part of the general difficulty some have experienced with Tarkovsky’s cinema has to with the poetic, sensuous and metaphoric way Tarkovsky subverts narrative categories and structures. Andrei Rublev is more aptly described as a fictional fresco linked by poetic rather than narrative logic. The broadly chronological structure circles through a prologue, eight consecutive episodes and an epilogue. It begins with Rublev leaving the Trinity monastery with two other monks, Daniil and Kirill, to search for work in Moscow. The film concludes with Rublev returning to this very monastery to paint his famous Holy Trinity. Throughout the journey Rublev remains enigmatic; a passive observer, discussed by others, often out-of-frame, at times even confused with someone else. It is hard to identify with him. We witness significant events in his life – Kirill’s conversation with Theophanes the Greek about Rublev, the temptations of the pagans, Rublev’s discussion with Daniil about ‘The Last Judgement’, the Tartar army’s raid on the church and city of Vladimir and the widespread slaughter which concludes with Rublev himself killing a man. Yet simply plotting these events fails to reveal the heart of the film. What never escapes us though, are the potent and magic images.
A man launches himself on an Icarus-like flight in a patchy air balloon soaring above the vast Russian landscape. This prologue is an unfolding meditation on our spiritual relationship to the world of appearances. The land becomes traversed by the abstract patterns of rivers, fleeing livestock, scattered and anonymous spectators. Reality is a complex, breathtaking and intricate tapestry. When the balloonist finally crashes back to earth, the grassy ground that awaits his landing is momentarily freeze framed, as if it were possible, just for a second or so, to resist his inevitable fall. Then follows an image of a huge, regal horse also collapsing heavily to the ground. These inspired juxtapositions remain mesmeric.
As with all of Tarkovsky’s films, the gift inherent in these images is endless. Snow falls in a ransacked church, a displaced horse walks through, birch trees dissect airy landscapes, rivers flow and engulf, a young woman plaits the hair of another who lies dead amongst the massacred, pagans carrying flaming torches rush through dark woods, concentric crowds fringe the frame. In a white cathedral, the camera pans from archway to archway and into an open room. Trestles and ladders redefine the space, while the camera lingers on still-life compositions of its inhabitants. Achingly long, slow pans across Slavic faces, staring, still and direct. A cavalry tramples the snow-covered landscape, bearing a crucifix, imitating Bruegel.
Andrei Rublev, under a vow of silence, journeys through this dark, violent, dangerous and warring medieval Russia. He comes upon the casting of a great bell. The bellmaker has died, but his son, Boriska, claims his father ‘passed on’ the secret of the bell to him alone. He has inherited his father’s work. Amid confusion, rain and treachery the bell is finally cast and raised. Within this cacophony, the monk Kirill has a reckoning with Rublev, accusing him of wasteful inactivity, of ‘taking his great talent to the grave’. As the bell at last rings out, Boriska, hysterical and exhausted, collapses, confessing that his father had not passed on his secret after all. The son had proceeded on faith, feeling and madness alone. Moved by the experience, Rublev tells Boriska that they should go to the Trinity monastery together where Rublev will paint and Boriska will cast bells. The two men embrace as the camera pans past them over burning logs and dying embers, as the black and white images slowly dissolve into colour fragments of Rublev’s frescoes. Out of the ashes arises a poetic vision. A meditation on the significance of what we are able and willing to leave behind.
But even now the camera refuses to pull back to reveal the whole fresco. We are only permitted to sense its completion through moments, glimpses and details. The whole eludes us to the very end – what we see and experience will always be a mysterious and incomplete montage of ideas, memories and fragments; the past and present overlapping without certainty. It is our belief that brings these things together.
Tarkovsky is one of the true poets of the cinema.
- Olivier Assayas and Bérénice Reynaud, “Tarkovsky: Seeing is Believing”, Sight and Sound 7.1 (January 1997): 25.
- Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994): 80.
- Julian Graffy, “Tarkovsky: The Weight of the World”, Sight and Sound 7.1 (January 1997): 18.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (London: Bodley Head, 1986).