Film Reviews

Andrei Rublev Andrei Tarkovsky

Rating - 9/10

Andrei Tarkovsky's epically repressed film about the great fifteenth century icon/fresco painter Andrei Rublev is a challenging piece of cinema by any standards with fragmented storytelling, a violent if liberal portrayal of history between the Slavs and Tatars, frequent biblical recitations, and signature laborious camerawork.  Threaded through the 205-minute feature is a thematic progression of artistic inspiration and endurance; Andrei Rublev accounts the man's periodic trek across Russia, showcasing events at the turn of the fifteenth century to the spring of 1424.  Divided into seasonal chapters, the historic epic is an artistic collaboration in the greatest sense of the term, because it is not only a commentary on the work of its crew but also a testament to the architecture and art of the century as the product of a large unit of physical and spiritual forces.  However, while a significant portion of the film dwells on the cooperation of a unified mass, the film depicts the brutality of nature, struggle with disease (the plague) and the clash between religious devotion and lawless paganism.  The latter is a feud rooted in a fundamental cultural divergence and the idea of serving God versus pillaging fellow man.

One of the most striking aspects of Andrei Rublev is Tarkovsky's unique modus operandi and penchant for long tracking shots. The director definitively uses a lack of editing to simulate immersion and intensity; a revelatory moment frequently commences at a close-up and then gradually zooms out to reveal the magnitude or breadth of a situation.  Most notably during the last fifteen minutes of the film, the camera closes in on a young girl amongst a group of villagers watching the erection of the bell tower and ceremonial ringing of the bell.  As the bell begins to chime, the camera pans left toward a woman in white (as a religious symbol), then follows her as village commotion begins.  There is a subtle cut is to a lone Boriska sitting on the ground while the bell's reverberation permeates the entire landscape, and the camera gently pulls back to a wide-angle to reveal hundreds of celebratory people gathering around the tower.  This entire sequence is exemplary of Tarkovsky's methods, because it demonstrates the devotion to one that is equal to the devotion of many.  Instead of predictable individual close-ups of principal subjects, Rublev, or the tower's chief instigator Boriska, Tarkovsky favors a more objective outlook, as he intends to showcase an omnipotent eye.  This can also be seen during the battle between the Slavs and Tartars in "The Raid" in the autumn of 1408; the lens maintains distance from the decisive action at medium-long shots to preserve a single, overarching point of view as the entire battle is under judgment by God.

Although the film is technically credited with the use of black and white and color as many of Tarkovsky's other works like Solyaris and The Mirror, only the last eight minutes of Andrei Rublev are shot in color, which exist almost like a separate narrative or abstract of Rublev's life through the fine details of his paintings.  The sequence is reached through a delicate tilt and pan to the embers of a dying fire, which then seamlessly dissolves into a redish-orange surface of a mural.  The initial materialization of these colors is symbolic of passion and the integral forging of the bell tower; while the closing frames do not directly concern themselves with the former 197 minutes, they are solely the inspiration of Andrei Rublev's work.  Interestingly, as not one scene in the black and white portion showcases Rublev physically painting or developing his artistry, viewers are able to witness the culmination of his passion, influence and style in the vibrant and devout closing moments.  The extreme close-ups of religious icons paired with György Ligeti-like choral music indicate unrelenting god-fearing piety.  "The Trinity," his most representative and famous icon, is appropriately showcased three times in the closing sequence, depicting the three angels who visited Abraham at the oak of Mamre in the book Genesis.  The film essentially resolves on the fixation of "The Trinity" as a divine representation for the father, son, and holy spirit, the prevailing theme in Rublev's life and work.

In his Criterion essay, Jim Hoberman discusses Tarkovsky's epic as one of the first Soviet films to treat the artist as a seminal world-historic figure and Christianity as an axiom of Russia's historical identity.  It is Rublev's presence that is rather unconventional, then, in a film designated with his own name, as he is occasionally only a witness or entirely absent from unfolding events.  Instead, Rublev is more of a spiritual link to the episodic nature of the film on both a literal and metaphorical level.  Because Rublev exists as a secondary character in certain instances, it allows audiences to actively search for meaning much as the characters are themselves.  In the second act from 1405-1406, Kirill, a wandering monk and acquaintance of Rublev, seeks to counsel Theophanes the Greek, another painter of icons, but Kirill is eclipsed by Rublev himself; in a jealous rage Kirill subsequently denounces the religious community and proclaims his allegiance the secular world.  However, as he discovers there is nothing for him there and ends up a starving soul, in the winter of 1412 he retreats into the arms of the monks at the Andronikov Monastery to seek atonement and repentance.  Along with Kirill's defiant self-quest, the everlasting biblical recitations also play a strong role in the identity of Rublev and Russia's history, serving as reminder of the presence of God as well as evil, which manifests in the destructive paganish Tatars and the bubonic plague.

In a miraculous turn at the conclusion of the black and white portion of the film (in 1424), Rublev is inspired by the artistic revelations of Boriska (who succeeds in crafting a bell while lacking his father's proclaimed secret) to break his vow of silence and console him, emotionally stirred to the point to undertake his destined profession as a painter again.  Prior to this sequence, Kirill, after retreating from the "secular world" and pleading for mercy even fails to shake Rublev's resolution.  When these scenes are juxtaposed, it seems that Tarkovsky suggests that the artist is only truly inspired by the trials and tribulations of another divine vessel; Boriska's miraculous achievement restores Rublev's faith in the earthly world.  In cinematic terms, Andrei Rublev teaches audiences the value of ingenuity and the pursuance of personal response and interpretation of one's environment.  As an ironic and unintentional commentary on the immediate censorship of the film, Tarkovsky has said, "art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn't look for harmony but would simply live in it.  Art is born out of an ill-designed world."  Similarly, a tumultuous fifteenth century Russia faced political and religious persecution as well as the severity of weather and disease, which all helped to shape the foundation of Rublev's artistic vision and perseverance.