[Note: This post was originally written for the 2016 Decades Blogathon co-hosted by Tom and Mark of Digital Shortbread and Three Rows Back respectively. As such I’ve turned comments off for this post as I’d encourage you to read it over at the Blogathon itself here, plus you can check out other entries by other people on Tom and Mark’s sites. I’d heard and read so much about Andrei Tarkosvsky without ever actually seeing one of his films – I know, I know, but we all have our gaps…it’s just that one of mine is the undisputed king of arthouse cinema – that sitting down and rectifying the omission had felt like a daunting prospect for quite some time. I’m not really sure why this was the case; the Russian director’s seven films are revered by cinephiles, after all, so it was always likely that I’d find lots to admire within any one of them. Perhaps I felt like this because a couple are quite long, or because I knew that the double whammy of metaphysical themes and cerebral subject matter would require unbroken concentration and full understanding of all the ins-and-outs of the narrative. Also – let’s be perfectly honest here – to the uninitiated one or two look as though they may be a little dry, on paper. What if – heaven forbid – I didn’t actually like them? How could I endure the shame? Should I close down my blog and pursue a life as a hermit, disconnected from all things internet? Should I watch them on a loop until something finally clicks? I set out in search of answers.]
For the uninitiated, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a historical epic from 1966 that dramatises the life of the titular Russian artist and monk, who worked primarily as an icon painter during the 15th Century. It examines the role of artists at that time, within its own version of Russian society, and details their desire to create works of beauty while also responding to the violence and destruction that surrounds them. The film clocks in at a bum-numbing 3 hours and 25 minutes, which is the length of the supposedly-definitive Criterion edition, though there are other shorter versions available, with censored material cut out. For me this is roughly the point at which watching a film begins to tip over from being an enjoyable activity (most of the time, anyway) into the realm of ordeal, though I’ve sat through longer on occasion. As a portrait of society in Russia at the time it’s extremely negative. It also offered thinly-veiled criticism of the Soviet regime during the 1960s – it’s no coincidence that an artist named Andrei was chosen as the filmmaker’s subject and protagonist – and it’s unsurprising that the film failed to see the light of day in its original state for many years. Eventually, of course, it made it to Cannes, and worldwide acclaim followed in the early 1970s. Tarkovsky – with this film in particular – influenced many directors whose work I am more (or slightly more) familiar with, and appreciate, from Lars von Trier to Terrence Malick, from Bela Tarr to Gus van Sant, from Alexei German to Nuri Bilge Ceylan. You’ll even find scenes from Andrei Rublev referenced in modern works as diverse as HBO’s Game Of Thrones and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. I’m mentioning all of this now because it’s potentially useful contextual information: I was acutely aware of the legacy of Tarkovsky as a filmmaker and the history of the film itself while watching Andrei Rublev; you feel it’s importance, you think about the way it echoes in the work of so many filmmakers on top of those mentioned above, and you’re also acutely aware of the irony that a film about artistic censorship and the battle between creativity and destruction should end up being butchered and banned itself for many years. All of this seems to hang in the air for every one of those 205 minutes.
Little is known about the real Rublev (certainly when compared to other European artists of the period), so Tarkovsky decided to portray his protagonist as – per Jim Hoberman’s Criterion essay – ‘a world-historic figure’. In this film, and this version of Russia, the talented painter (played by Anatoly Solonitsyn) is well-known within certain artistic and religious circles, and his fame seems to increase as time progresses. Tarkovsky opts for an episodic structure, and there are eight separately-titled black-and-white segments in total, along with a prologue and a full-colour epilogue; each of the segments portrays different events during Rublev’s adult life, including a rural meeting with a jester-type figure, a strange encounter with a group of pagans, a brutal Tatar raid on a village and a story about the casting of a bell. The artist travels to a monastery to study, leaves, works on a church fresco, takes a mentally-ill girl under his wing, kills a man to save her and, eventually, withdraws into a vow of silence, only to be inspired once again at the end of the film. Together the episodes cover around 25 years, though the emphasis is on a dozen of those. Sometimes Rublev is the central figure, sometimes he’s an incidental character. Throughout we see various attacks on art, creativity, Christianity and free speech, usually by groups of soldiers or warriors, and carried out through the practice of censorship or via verbal and physical reproaches. Whenever something is created in the film then the creation in question – or something close by, or related – is wrecked soon after, save for the bell at the end, an optimistic symbol to ring in the changes as the country enters a new era. But, for the most part, Rublev and those around him struggle with exterior, uncontrollable forces – mobs, the petty jealousies of contemporaries, the whims of (largely-unseen) princes and masters – or bear witness to others enduring similar struggles and persecution.
Inevitably one or two of the segments are less exciting or involving than others, though the film is packed with striking camerawork and memorable images that ensure looking at it is never dull, and they also imbue it with a sense of grandness; the sheer number of meticulously-arranged frames – sometimes featuring hundreds of extras – that stack up is as unexpected for the first-time viewer as it is impressive. The camera tracks characters as they move through or around buildings, usually during long takes. There are well-executed long shots that reveal the ebb and flow of the landscape as well as the size of entire towns and settlements. There are even some of these from high up in the air, breathtaking in their scope, with birds’ eye perspectives and, in one case, the view of a man who has temporarily managed to fly in a balloon. Such lofty views and filled frames – it’s all about the edges – contrast with stark, minimal close-ups on terra firma. How a film looks is – for me – more important as an individual element to the overall work than just about anything else, including the acting, the script or the plot, and Andrei Rublev is without doubt one of the best-looking films I’ve ever seen. (The cinematographer was Vadim Yusov, who also shot Tarkovsky’s Solaris and one of the director’s early featurettes.)
As you might expect, given the care and attention toward the film’s visual style and the extended running time, there are recurring motifs. Horses – a symbol of life – feature prominently, with one infamously filmed falling down some stairs during the Tatar raid sequence. Birds, particularly ducks and swans, are also regularly evident, while it’s a film that is intermittently besieged by heavy rain, the storms constantly adding to the pervading boggy, muddy, grimness of many of the sets and locations. The grittiness of Tarkovsky’s medieval Russia is furthered by the violence, which is brutal and bloody more often than not. Few people escape the clutches of the soldiers and warriors who rampage with impunity, and those who find themselves at the mercy of other men invariably end up beaten, burned, beheaded, cut down or – in one case – tied to a horse as it gallops away. Yet that’s not to say Andrei Rublev is merely a feast of medieval hacking and slashing; that’s the exciting stuff, for sure, but there are long passages in which conversations about art and religion take place that may test the patience of some. I found myself drifting in and out of two of these in particular, unable to sustain enough interest in the subject of the dialogue.
It’s often difficult to know exactly where you are, or who the characters are, or what their significance is to Andrei. That alone will cause many people to dislike the film, or at the very least to find the experience of watching it a chore. In today’s age we’re lucky, in the sense that it’s possible to watch Tarkovsky’s film after reading a plot summary or a synopsis of the historical background, as I did, but even with that information I still struggled at times. I wonder how those who managed to see Andrei Rublev in the late 1960s or early 1970s fared; it can’t have been easy to follow, but in a way I wonder whether that even matters, given the obvious rewards that can be found from other aspects of the film. And I suppose that’s Tarkovsky’s second feature in a nutshell; it is difficult, and challenging, and unwieldy, for many reasons, but it’s also immensely rewarding all the same. I won’t deny that watching it felt like a slog at times (though, in truth, there were other periods during which the minutes flew by), and I agree with the writer David Thompson, who says ‘Tarkovsky’s epic stance reveals his single handicap: the lack of humour, and the way in which that slows his grinding pace’. This. Is. A. Film. That. Grinds. Really, though, such trifling is far outweighed by the wonders of this singular, incredible achievement. When the prologue finally arrives it’s a glorious epiphany: we see close-ups of some of Rublev’s surviving works, in all their glory. They are beautiful to look at, and despite the mud-inflected brutality of much of the action, so is Tarkovsky’s film.
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky.
Written by: Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Konchalovsky.
Starring: Anatoly Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Burlyayev, Irma Raush.
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov.
Editing: Tatyana Egorycheva, Lyudmila Feiginova, Olga Shevkunenko.
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.
Running Time: 205 minutes.