In his book Sculpting in Time, the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky dedicates an entire early chapter to exploring the nature and purpose of art-what he refers to as "the yearning for the ideal." Thus, it should come as little surprise that his second feature film, following the international success of his war-torn expressionist feature debut Ivan's Childhood (1962), would be about an artist. And not just any artist, but the legendary 15th-century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev, who had recently been the center of renewed interest in the Soviet Union, with the government authorities celebrating the largely unknown Christian painter as the Russian Michelangelo.
If you were to read anything about Andrei Rublev, undoubtedly the first sentence you would encounter would say something to the effect of "Very little is known about Rublev's life " In fact, it is all but impossible to attribute with complete accuracy any of his works, as they were all unsigned (in fact, the only painting for which he has been determined to be the sole artist is the icon of the Trinity, which was painted sometime around 1410 and currently resides in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow). This is why, in discussing his impetus to make the film, Tarkovsky wrote, "I knew it would certainly not be a historical or biographical work. I was interested in something else: I wanted to investigate the nature of the poetic genius of the great Russian painter. I wanted to use the example of Rublev to explore the question of the psychology of artistic creativity, and analyze the mentality and civic awareness of an artist who created spiritual treasures of timeless significance."
Thus, one should not approach Andrei Rublev as anything even remotely resembling a traditional "biopic," but rather a film of intense yearning that uses the medieval painter as a launching point for artistic and philosophical inquiry, which necessarily makes the film narratively disjointed and sometimes challenging to follow. Like all of Tarkovsky's great masterworks, it is a film to which you must return again and again, as it fully reveals itself only over time. You can sense Tarkovsky struggling, as he did with Ivan's Childhood, to make a film fully of his own artistic philosophy while also somehow delivering a work that audiences could understand; if Andrei Rublev has a weakness, it is in that split, one that Tarkovsky would eventually overcome in his '70s masterpieces like Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).
The script, which Tarkovsky wrote in collaboration with Andrey Mikhalkov-Konchalovskiy (who had also worked on Ivan's Childhood and was already on his way to becoming a major Soviet writer/director in his own right), eschews the conventional biographical arc and instead presents us with seven discreet episodes (which Tarkovsky calls "novellas"), most of which are focused on or around pivotal moments in Rublev's life (this makes sense given that no one even knows where Rublev was born and the first historical mention of him was in 1405, when he was likely in his 40s and had painted the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Moscow Kremlin). The film actually begins with a prologue sequence that has nothing to do directly with Rublev's life. It depicts an attempted hot air balloon flight by a daring young inventor that is thwarted at the last minute by an unruly mob, which establishes one of the film's primary themes: the conflict between the will of the artist and the repressive forces around him. The subsequent seven sections details events that Rublev (played by Anatoliy Solonitsyn) experienced, but primarily in terms of how they affected his psychology and understanding of his role as a spiritual artist in a world of conflict. Tarkovsky includes various historical figures, including Rublev's fellow monks and icon painters Daniil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), as well as Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev), a master painter whose combination of humanism and cynicism has a great impact on Rublev's worldview (in one particularly poignant scene, in which Rublev stands in the ruins of the burned-out church he had painted, he carries on a lengthy conversation with Theophanes, who has already died).
As with all of Tarkovsky's work, Andrei Rublev is a visual masterwork, a film of such intense visual beauty and detail that it rivals one's ability to take it all in (the cinematography is by Vadim Yusov, who also shot Ivan's Childhood and who would work with Tarkovsky again on Solaris). Despite his eschewing of a historically accurate narrative, Tarkovsky and production designer Evgeniy Chernyaev (yet another collaborator from Ivan's Childhood) sought to create a realistic, naturalistic depiction of medieval Russia that would still feel contemporary and not like a historical relic, which means that the film is awash in mud and blood and mist and rough textures that remind us in decidedly physical terms of just how primitive life was when Rublev was seeking to engage the divine through paint and brushes. The film was notable at the time for its intense depictions of graphic violence, particularly the harrowing sequence in Part V in which the town of Vladimir, where Rublev has spent a great deal of time decorating a church, is raided by a group of Tatars aligned with a young Russian prince who aspires to usurp the power of his older brother. The violence is disturbing in its documentary-like aesthetic (numerous animals were injured or killed on screen, resulting in some of the biggest cuts to the film), yet it leads to one of the film's most poetic images, as Rublev and Daniil wander through the remains of the church as snow gently falls through the open ceiling.
Much of the film details Rublev's struggles to reconcile his own artistic philosophy with the world in which he lives, particularly the pressure of the Orthodox Church, which wanted vengeful, apocalyptic imagery while Rublev wanted to convey divine love and forgiveness, and the political violence of 15th-century Russia, which saw constant war promulgated by various princes and the Mongol-aligned Tatars. For Tarkovsky, Rublev's painting of the Trinity "epitomi[zes] the ideal of brotherhood, love and quiet sanctity," ideals that are mostly in conflict with the world in which Rublev lived (and in which we still live today, which is why the film still speaks to us despite being a product of the Soviet film industry about a medieval painter).
Given the film's emphasis on the potential of individual artistry to be crushed by repressive regimes, as well as its focus on the centrality of Christianity to Russian history, it is little surprise that it encountered issues with Goskino, the USSR State Committee for Cinematography, which battled with Tarkovsky over numerous cuts of the film and attempted to suppress it distribution for years. Tarkovsky's original 205-minute cut was eventually pared down to 183 minutes, and that version screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969 (at the Soviet authorities' insistence), three years after its debut in Moscow. It showed up in the U.S., distributed by Columbia Pictures, in 1973 with a further 20 minutes cut out, where it was understandably misunderstood and not given the critical praise it deserved. Thankfully, we now have access to both Tarkovsky's original 205-minute cut and the eventually released 183-minute version, which despite being produced under state pressure, Tarkovsky came to embrace as the definitive cut, which allows us to see and appreciate the work's grand vision and heady mix of history, theology, and philosophy.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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