Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and co-written with Fridrikh Gorenshteyn, “Solaris” is a sci-fi film based off of the novel of the same name by Stanislav Lem. The opening of the film begins on Earth in a future where the Soviet Union (or Humanity in general) has achieved interstellar travel. Off in a faraway star system resides ‘Solaris’, the titular ocean planet, where an orbiting space station has been experiencing strange and mysterious phenomena. Our lead, the psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), is briefed on what they know about the developing situation by cosmonaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), at Kelvin’s father’s home in the countryside. Once aboard the station Kelvin finds Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) dead, while the other two scientists, Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), were distraught and deeply disturbed by the events unfolding on the space station.
“Solaris”, like all of Tarkovsky’s other films to some extent, is slow. Whether or not you have the patience to sit through the film’s very long shots, sometimes seemingly trying it’s very best to test your will to finish it, will inform your decision to attempt the film or not. While not the slowest pace among Tarkovsky’s films- there are several sequences that can test the rigor of any cinema-goer. Having spent the summer of 2017 getting acquainted with one of the last great American arthouse filmmakers in David Lynch’s third season of the series “Twin Peaks”, I’ve had time to digest the merit of slowness in cinema. I’m not always in the mood for such storytelling- but when I am there is hardly any greater filmmaker than Tarkovsky for such things. No one films the quiet humility of nature as he does, placing almost more emphasis on the environment than what’s happening within it.
It appears that when the station sent down X-rays to probe the planet for intelligent life, the planet responded to this by reflecting certain memories and perceptions of the remaining scientists’ minds into real physical forms. Kelvin is also quickly effected by the radiating phenomena as his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) materializes after his first night aboard the station. She is exactly as Kelvin remembers her, therefore she only has access to information that Kelvin would expect Hari to be aware of. At first he is bewildered by her presence as he expels his wife’s double into outer space in one of the escape pods. Another double of Hari appears a few hours later and Kelvin accepts this new Hari after awhile. She needs physical proximity to Kelvin’s brainwaves, and when left alone the clone punched through a steel door because she panicked and couldn’t figure out how to open the door manually. Now, that’s a bad case of monophobia!
Much like another sci-fi favorite of mine, “Blade Runner 2049”, this film debates the very notion of humanity. It asks what it means to be human, and whether or not you have to be born to be able to understand humans entirely. For Kelvin, it did not matter that this Hari was only a biological response to his literal proximity to an alien planet’s intelligence-aura. This recently formed aberration behaved as Hari would based on Kelvin’s memories of her, and the return of a departed loved one can be a powerful motivation, especially considering the circumstances of Hari’s death ten years prior. For Kelvin, this proved to be enough in the end.
After the space station goes through it’s scheduled weightlessness stage Doctors Snaut and Sartorius project Kelvin’s brainwaves towards Solaris. After awhile, the other doubles and “guests” disappear and Kelvin decides to go home. However he’s revealed to actually be on an exact copy of his father’s countryside home and estate as Solaris forms an island out of Kelvin’s memories. Now that’s a satisfactory ending!
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, “Upgrade” is a revenge-thriller with a futuristic sci-fi setting not unlike that of “Blade Runner”s. My plan was to catch this one when it was in theaters this past summer, it just never materialized, but I am so glad I came back to find it after video release. This pulpy, body-horror, grindhouse, genre flick isn’t what I expected going in, but I immediately fell in love with the concept of the film after the hook.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a simple man in a complex world. In a time of fully automated cars and advanced biomedical technologies Grey stands out. He’s a mechanic that works on classic American muscle cars with a deep-seated love for the analog ways of the past. With Laura (Belén Rueda), the love of his life, they lead a productive life together despite the technological gap between them. After putting the finishing touches on one of his sales cars, he brings Laura with him to drop it off to the buyer, a reclusive big-tech genius named Eron (Harrison Gilbertson). While there, Eron shows Grey and Laura his latest project set to revolutionize the world, STEM. A computer chip the size of a beetle, STEM is an A.I. capable of lightning fast processing power and immense data crunching ability. Grey, being the analog purist that he is, isn’t impressed by the reveal while Laura ogles over the new possibilities. On the way home, their automatic car disobeys orders and takes them into dangerous neighborhoods before quickly accelerating into a pole and flipping the car, killing Laura in the process. A gang of people flood the streets and pull Grey from the wreckage and shoot him in the back of the head, paralyzing him from the neck down.
Fast forward to Grey immobilized in a hospital bed when, surprise surprise, Eron waltzes into his room to offer him an.. Upgrade. Again, Grey turns down the offer. Seeing his partner die before his very eyes hasn’t exactly motivated him to want to live, and especially thrive, by technological augmentation. After he hits rock bottom emotionally and psychologically, he reconsiders and accepts Eron’s offer. After the surgery, Eron informs Grey of the need for secrecy surrounding STEM as the experimental tech isn’t exactly legal.
With his mobility regained Grey immediately goes into detective mode to find Laura’s killers. It is here that STEM (Simon Maiden) chooses to introduce itself to Grey by helping him follow the clues. STEM is also handy for a good fight. After verbally giving STEM permission, the A.I. takes control of his body and efficiently, brutally, attacks any opponents. The fight scenes in this movie are a great deal of fun! They, cleverly, have an extra layer of visual comedy in play. When Grey is fighting, his face reveals his horror to the actions of his own body with STEM at the wheel. He smashes plates over assailants heads while his face recoiles from the creative violence at hand. That’s just brilliant. Eventually a local cop, Cortez (Betty Gabriel) starts to sniff out Grey’s suspicious activities. She was fun as a threat for Grey in the film but there wasn’t a lot of characterization with her.
This film was exactly the kind of sci-fi that I enjoy. Thought provoking ideas mixed with paranoia about a changing world, and some extreme B-movie violence thrown in for good measure. It was funny, it was dark, it was just a damn good science-fiction film. I highly recommend it, but especially if you enjoy other modern sci-fi flicks like “Annihilation” or “Ex-Machina”.
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa, and directed by Kurosawa, “Rashomon” is a film about the complexities of human nature surrounding a murder with four contradictory eye-witness accounts. In the film three men find solace from a torrent of rain under Kyoto’s Rashomon gate. In the opening a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) are discussing and processing the differing accounts of an event recently taken place nearby. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) comes in from the storm and joins the conversation. He’s brought up to date on the situation at hand; a samurai (Masayuki Mori) has been murdered, his wife (Machiko Kyo) raped, and a local bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is the suspect. The woodcutter happened upon the crime scene and was the first to report the incident.
What follows is a series of revolutionary flashbacks to describe the tale as each character remembers it. All retellings of the same event differ, while remaining both true and false. True in that it is how they remember the events, but false in objective truth. The only scenes that are objectively true in what they show us are the ones taking place at Rashomon. Every flashback is an amalgamation of fractured memories, every scene in the forest broke new ground by showing the audience unreliable retellings of the past. This wasn’t a new idea that “Rashomon” originated, but rather a storytelling device that the film popularized. In fact the film is so connected to the idea of contradictory interpretations of past events that they became entwined with each other until ‘The Rashomon Effect’ became part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Each suspect questioned by an unknown official, which leads into each one’s version of the truth. The bandit gives his testimonial first, then the wife, and then the dead samurai- who speaks through a spirit medium, with the woodcutter’s tale kept until the end. All claim to be guilty to varying degrees, and all describe the situation with varying representations of themselves and the others involved. The three men under the Rashomon gate have differing reactions to the events and various recollections of those involved. The commoner is the most cynical of the three, at one point he posits, “Is there anyone who is truly good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe.” The woodcutter is visually distraught by these stories as he tries to reassemble the truth of the matter, while the priest seems to be placing the weight of his faith in humanity upon the outcome of the tale.
The film ends on a high note when the fog of ambiguity is lifted by the sounds of an abandoned child crying out. The woodcutter lifts his spirits and takes on the responsibility of this orphan, proving to the priest that humanity still has hope left in its spirit. The simple act of selflessness gives the film’s end a beacon to strive towards, even if humanity is muddled, complex, and not always truthful- we still strive to be better than our worst habits.
“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.“- Akira Kurosawa
Final Score: 1 samurai ghost, 1 over the top bandit, and 1 woodcutter
Look, definitive Top Ten lists litter numerous webpages and blogposts this time of year, and I normally deviate from rankings and scores anymore on the subject of a film’s merit- however, I will write here about ten of the films that caught my eye (and heart) this year at the theater; it’s just a nice round number to work with. I didn’t see all of the films I wanted to (like every other year) and if I catch one later I’ll write up a review if I found it noteworthy. I suspect “Eighth Grade” and “Upgrade” will get this treatment in the new year. Last year I made an effort to get to older films that I’ve either neglected or just missed entirely, classics that I needed to check off of lists, and the occasional odd pick resulting in a new favorite (Here’s looking at you “Stalker” ). So, it was a strange and fascinating year of movie watching for me. *Most, but not all (MI6 Fallout & Spider-Verse), of the films listed below have received their own movie reviews over the course of the year so if you’d like a more in-depth discussion take a peek through my 2018 reviews and check them out!
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. “Infinity War” was the culmination of a decade of Marvel Studio’s Cinematic Universe, eighteen movies of interconnected storytelling resulted in the ultimate payout for both longtime Marvel fans and execs. Thanos proved he had more tricks up his sleeve than just a space throne and profoundly undid the expanded universe with a snap of his fingers. Even with all of the combined might of these comic-book characters, it wasn’t enough to stop the Mad Titan. If you, somehow, still haven’t seen this movie, get on it! “Endgame” is mere months away and you’re gonna want to be caught up for the second part of “Infinity War”.
ISLE OF DOGS
Wes Anderson’s latest foray into stop motion animation was simply a delight. Filled to the gills with celebrity voice actors, some Anderson faithfuls were present, however there were some new additions to the quirky symmetry loving director. From Bryan Cranston and Edward Norton to Frances McDormand and Yoko Ono the voice cast imbued the whimsical production with an extra layer of indelible charm. The film’s story is about breaking down the barriers of communication with a tale of a boy, Atari, and his lost dog, Spots. Set in the not so distant future of Megasaki City ‘Dog Flu’ sweeps through the city and swift legislation is ordered condemning all canines to be quarantined on trash island off the coast of Japan. Atari sets out to trash island to find his dog Spots and discover the mystery behind the mass migration of mutts. I recommend this one to anyone fascinated by animation or especially stop-motion animation, it’s a beautifully crafted film and the story it sets out to tell is pretty fun!
This was one of the smartest and strangest sci-fi films to come out in years. In the opening of the film, a meteor crashes into a lighthouse in southeast North America and emits a strange and ever expanding phenomena. Naturally, the Government ascends upon the affected area and labels the abnormality The Shimmer. After a few years of failed Military efforts the Feds finally send in a scientifically minded team consisting of five women. Lena (Natalie Portman) is recruited after her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns to her after being sent into The Shimmer months prior in one of the many Military missions. He is the only person to have returned from The Shimmer. Equal parts horrific scientific exploration and beautiful abstract mystery, “Annihilation” is one of the most cerebral and original sci-fi films in years and you owe it to yourself to check out this slow-burn Lovecraftian horror.
SUPER TROOPERS 2
The comedy sequel is a hard sell. Especially for a cult classic like “Super Troopers“, but even more rare is the comedy sequel that excels past the quality of the first film and improves on what worked in the first place. “Super Troopers 2” is such a rarity. The long gestating bookend from Broken Lizard may have taken 17 years to realize, but it’s one that was well considered. The movie reunites the Vermont State Troopers as the transition team that oversees a section of Canada being turned over to the Americans after a few ancient documents revealed the border to be incorrect. Naturally this gave Broken Lizard the opportunity to have an assortment of Canada vs America jokes veiled in a film that cleverly retraces the first film’s steps while sidestepping the faults with that film’s story structure. This is one of the best comedy sequels out there, if you enjoyed the first one, odds are you’ll have a good time with this one too.
Ari Aster’s directorial debut was one to remember. I’m not the most likely person to suggest a horror film, but when there’s an overwhelming chorus of people pouring praise on such a film- well, then I had to go see it. This film is very good. I don’t know how soon I’ll see it again, but that’s mainly because it turned my own house into a creepfest for a good two weeks this last year. This horror film is slow, it doesn’t hold your hand, and it doesn’t fully reveal the plot’s underpinnings until the very last scene and it’s all the better for it. Toni Collette should receive awards recognition for her work here as it is both spellbinding and horrific in the best way possible. Check this one out if you have the patience for some good scares!
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 6: FALLOUT
Who knew that the “Mission Impossible” franchise would get better with each installment (with one notable exception)? The plot is almost unnecessary at this point, though still fine in this film, we’re just here to see Tom Cruise risk his life doing crazy insane stunts for our amusement. This film definitely delivers on that front, he learned how to fly helicopters for the third act, broke his ankle jumping between rooftops, and completed over 100 Halo jumps in preparation for this film. Throw in a mustachioed Henry Cavill for good measure and you’ve got yourself an excellent action spy movie that adds fuel to the “Mission Impossible” franchise.
A QUIET PLACE
This film earned it’s place on my list this year purely out of shock at how damn thrilling it was. I saw this film on its opening night on a whim and I was rewarded heavily for this game of chance at the theater. The concept was perfect, the shots and dialogue were lean and efficient, and the surprise masterclass execution of suspense was outstanding. The film is a tight white-knuckle exercise in how quiet a theater full of people can get- the crowd I was with was a sold out group of loud, chatty, people of all ages eating snacks and loudly laughing during the previews, but after that first scene the room went silent and the only audible sounds from the audience for the remainder of the film were gasps and quiet murmurs of exclaimed expletives.
Working as a direct sequel to the original slasher film in John Carpenter’s “Halloween“, this film had a lot to live up to. Earning the blessing from Carpenter went a long way to assuage my own suspicions before seeing the film. This sequel/reboot brought back Jaime Lee Curtis and Nick Castle and stitched together a highly entertaining new film in the franchise. The filmmakers made Michael legitimately scary again, and they skillfully crafted the present day Haddonfield to be the serial killer’s playground once more. Jaime Lee Curtis killed it as a paranoid, and simultaneously broken and stronger, Laurie Strode. While there are small hiccups that deviate a bit from the overall mood, I thought this was an excellent horror film and I can’t wait to see it again!
While not quite as phenomenal as the initial outing, this sequel delivers a thrilling journey for the son of Apollo. The only nitpick, if I can even call it that, I have with the film is that some of the cinematography wasn’t quite as immersive as Coogler’s “Creed“. That being said, this film has a better villain in the son of Ivan Drago, Viktor. The story further evolves all of the returning characters in nuanced ways, but especially concerning Ivan and Viktor Drago. The fights are visceral, the losses were shattering, and the montages stayed as galvanizing as ever. If you’re a fan of the “Rocky” franchise, this is fine addition to the legacy.
INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
Having already seen three live-action Marvel movies, “The Incredibles 2“, and trying to fit in a potential “Aquaman” viewing before it leaves theaters this year- my bar was fairly high for the super-hero genre walking into the theater this time. Which is why I was so massively impressed with “Spider-Verse”. Not only is the hybridization between Pixar-level 3D-Animation and the natural hand drawn flair outright impressive, but the storytelling skill on display far exceeded my expectations. The team-up between the two core Spider-Men in Peter Parker and Miles Morales was vastly entertaining and surprisingly moving. Pile on four more “Spider-People” from other comic-book universes and any other story would have been overwhelmed and chaotic, but this film cut through the fat and produced a pitch-perfect, brilliant, animated film.
Honorable Mentions: “Mandy“, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs“, “Best F(r)iends Vol 1“
MOVIES I MISSED IN 2018:
“EIGHTH GRADE”, “UPGRADE”, “IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK”, “THE FAVOURITE”, “lOVE, SIMON”, “SEARCHING”, “WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?”, “PADDINGTON 2”, “GREEN BOOK”, “ROMA”, “BLINDSPOTTING”, “FIRST MAN”, “SORRY TO BOTHER YOU”, “THUNDER ROAD”, “BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY”, “SHOPLIFTERS”, “MARY POPPINS RETURNS”, “CRAZY RICH ASIANS”, “BURNING”, “BUMBLEBEE”, “SUSPIRIA”, “AQUAMAN”, “TULLY”, “VICE”, “THE MULE”, “THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN”, “THE SISTERS BROTHERS”, “GAME NIGHT”, “RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET”, “THE GRINCH”, “BLOCKERS”, “THE HATE YOU GIVE”, “LET THE SUNSHINE IN”, “NIGHT COMES ON”, “A SIMPLE FAVOR”, “A STAR IS BORN”, “VENOM”, “THE TALE”, “THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT”, “MADELINE’S MADELINE”, “COLD WAR”, “THE DEATH OF STALIN”, “YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE”, “LEAVE NO TRACE”, “THE RIDER”, “THE NIGHT COMES FOR US”, “WIDOWS”, “PRIVATE LIFE”, & “FIRST REFORMED”
Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Paterson” is a meditation on the struggle, lyricism, and poetry of everyday life. The film focuses on Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, who writes poetry in his fleeting free time. He lives with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), the love of his life and the yang to his ying. While Paterson lives a life of simple routine with flourishes of artistry, Laura chases her dreams of artistic freedom through whichever flight of fancy that catches her imagination. From being the owner/chef of a cupcake bakery one evening to taking Spanish guitar courses online so she can pursue her latest dream of being a country music star.
Paterson (The film) is structured around a week in his life. From overhearing casual conversations on his routes to catching up on the latest developments of the local Romeo and Juliet of the neighborhood bar (William Jackson Harper as Everett and Chasten Harmon as Marie), the film isn’t concerned with anything other than the small, mundane, beat of it’s protagonist. One of the more poignant scenes of the film happens when Paterson is walking home and he decides to accompany a young girl until her mother returns from a nearby apartment. He sees that she has a notebook of writing too, she shares a poem of hers, and in that moment the film captures the beauty of such random acts of serendipity; two strangers sharing an appreciation for their craft.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll love this movie, it is “slow” and “nothing happens”, however if you find yourself needing a break from the noise, confusion, and chaos of your own every day life- then this film may just be what you need. I honestly went into this film not knowing if I would actually enjoy the experience or just be resentful of time spent on this whereas it may have been better spent on other priorities, I’ve seen Jim Jarmusch films films before and haven’t ever been really impressed or absorbed by them. (I’ve seen “Stranger than Paradise” “Dead Man” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and “Broken Flowers”) This is the only film of Jarmusch’s that has worked for me this far, though I can at least understand why some people enjoy “Broken Flowers”, but it’s not for me. This a solid Feel Good movie, perfect for a cold and blustery winter night.
Written by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah, and directed by Peckinpah, “The Wild Bunch” is a Western following a gang of gunslingers and outlaws emerging into the twentieth century as they come to terms with the end of their era. If you’ve spent the last two months roaming the digital countrysides of “Red Dead Redemption 2” like I have, and you’re seeking more of that same grizzled cowboy violence, then “The Wild Bunch” will definitely satiate some of your old west woes. This movie shares many of the same themes and visual cues that the groundbreaking video-game western implements over it’s hours, upon hours, of storytelling.
After a botched heist devolves into a shootout in an excellent opening scene, the ragged outlaws finally reach a place to gather themselves and account for their losses. It’s here that Pike (William Holden), the gang leader, poises the terms of their next score and the core of their existential crisis, “We’ve got to start thinkin’ beyond our guns. Those days are closin’ fast.” Set during the global eve of World War One in 1913 with the modern world quickly encroaching on those tied to the ways of old, “The Wild Bunch” delivers us a nuanced and layered film that pairs its chaotic violence with real humanistic quality. It’d be an arduous task in finding a Western more concerned with tragedy and loss, or one so bathed in melancholy and savageness. The noble outlaws in this picture are exposed to some of the most uncensored violence of the day when it was initially released. While Sam Peckinpah thought the violence would shock people into the horrors of such a time, he would have no idea how much people might enjoy such cathartic carnage.
The driving force of the film lies in the pursuit of Pike’s gang by a posse led by a former outlaw and friend, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Previously captured and coerced into hunting his fellow outlaws by an anonymous railroad tycoon, Deke detests the system he now works for and frequently talks down to his less than skillful hired help. Thus Pike’s gang flees to south of the border where they are plunged into another brand of chaos in the Mexican civil war as gun runners. While Deke may be coerced into tracking his former brothers, Pike’s gang has their own fair share of being forced into servitude by the Mexican army. Adherence to pressure by necessity, being forcibly made to adhere to the ways of others, is a major theme of the film as these outlaws get swept up by the progression of time.
Peckinpah handles the individual gang members with such mythic, admirable, and poetic romanticism that you often forget about earlier sequences focusing on the deglamorization of warfare. It’s within this contradictory sensation of heroic admiration and frightening nihilism that Peckinpah allows his characters to shine. Angel (Jaime Sánchez), and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine [The Arthur Morgan of this film ironically]) in particular, are standouts among the gang. Dutch is one of the older outlaws and Pike’s second in command. With his wisdom from the school of hard knocks and a heart of gold to match, he pairs well with Angel’s youthful exuberance and itchy trigger finger. It’s all about balance, right?
The film is bookended by two large shootout sequences which weave chaotic violence with a romanticized nostalgia for times (and films) gone by. The film doesn’t necessarily glorify violence so much as it attempts to show the uglier and dirtier world of cinematic gunslingers. I honestly couldn’t say it better than the 1995 Chicago Tribune review of the restored director’s cut, “It’s a tale of demonic intensity, nightmare nihilism, cockeyed courage, outrageous compassion and savage grandeur.”
Final Score: A few bags of washers and a train full of guns!
Written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, “Andrei Rublev” is a medieval Russian epic loosely based on the real life Christianity icon painter of the same name. The Guardian (publication) ranked this film as the number one art-house film of all time, and while this film is indeed a master work by a filmmaker with an uncompromising vision- it ultimately wasn’t one that worked for me. “Andrei Rublev” is, like most of Tarkovsky’s works, a very long film. At other times this hasn’t hampered my interest in his films, and I wasn’t wholly uninterested here, but this film moves to the beat of its own drum and if you’re not tuned to its frequency then it will leave you in the dust. Tarkovsky was not one to bend, or compromise, his artistic vision for anyone and while I respect this notion, it’s made his films difficult to recommend- I do, but with a handful of asterisks attached.
The film opens with a man trying to fly in a makeshift hot air balloon. He and a small dedicated group are stoking the flames, tightening ropes, and generally rushing to prepare this experimental pursuit. As the initial man weaves his way up to the top of the church, an angry mob forms below and actively tries to stop the men from taking flight. At the last second the man we’ve been following entangles himself in ropes hanging from the balloon and slowly soars away. He laughs as he floats above the people- but quickly crashes to the ground moments later. This scene sets the mood for the rest of the film and hints at Tarkovsky’s attitude towards the creative process in general. A few misunderstood people set out to forge dreams into something palpable, the masses don’t quite understand it and then try to quash these attempts seen as blasphemous or against the normal accepted behavior within the major established community. These misunderstood people strive for something more despite this, even if it kills them. Tarkovsky himself has spoken about the prologue with the balloon before, stating that the man in the balloon is.. “The symbol of daring, in the sense that creation requires from man the complete offering of his being. Whether one wishes to fly before it has become possible, or cast a bell without having learned how to do it, or paint an icon – all these acts demand that, for the price of his creation, man should die, dissolve himself in his work, give himself entirely.“
The film is separated into seven chapters in Andrei Rublev’s life, The Jester, Theophanes the Greek, The Holiday, The Last Judgement, The Raid, The Charity Winter, and The Bell. In the beginning Andrei (Anatoly Solonitsyn), Daniil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) are three traveling monks looking for work as icon painters in the year 1400. Seeking shelter from a heavy rain, they enter a small barn full of local villagers being entertained by a jester whose sarcasm and bitter rebuke of the church and the state gets him arrested by nearby soldiers who knock him unconscious and smash his stringed instrument before carting him off. This scene in itself gets to the larger themes at hand, mainly the struggle of working as an artist under a repressive regime that cracks down on any and all dissidents. Openly exploring these ideas is most likely why it was shut down so quickly by the Soviet Union in the 1960’s.
Throughout the rest of the film we get pieces of the icon painters life during different periods of his life, from his teachings under ‘Theophanes the Greek’ to his witnessing of a Tartar raid on the city of Vladimir. The Tartar raid was one of my favorite sequences in the film, partly because it showcased the madness of living at the time but also because it had some of the most active action and cinematography of the whole film. Oh and horses, Tarkovsky loves his horse imagery in film, and he uses them to great effect here. From a man being dragged by horse through a chaotic scene inside the church to the general chaos of soldier-less horses navigating wooden staircases, to their aimless wandering amongst the scenery; Tarkovsky made some unique choices here as a director that elevated the immersion for me throughout this scene. In fact, this whole sequence has essentially the only direct action that Rublev takes as a character in the whole of the film- he saves an uneducated woman from the clutches of a Tartar soldier, and even this happens just outside of the frame so that we are clued into this uncharacteristic burst of character action. Which is all well and good, but brace yourself for the return of inactivity and passivity as our main character goes on a vow of silence for a majority of the remainder of the film.
For me, “Andrei Rublev” is the least engaging film of Tarkovsky’s that I’ve seen thus far (Only “The Sacrifice” and “Nostalghia” remain), but this could be the result of many factors. At this point my favorite Tarkovsky films have been “Stalker” and “Solaris”, and I think it’s because in those films Tarkovsky uses science fiction to pose long and thoughtful debates about philosophical ideas with characters that hold well defined positions. In Rublev, Tarkovsky is more experimental, relies less on dialogue, and created a story that’s heavily steeped in Russian history- a subject with which I am terribly unfamiliar with. Which isn’t to say that any of this is bad or that the film deserves marks against it- it’s just what contributed to my personal lack of fascination with the film. Even the cinematography on display in Rublev lacks the tactile and dreamlike composure that was present in “Ivan’s Childhood” and later used to great effect in “Stalker” and “The Mirror” in particular. This may just be a film that I need to digest further and give another viewing or two to really immerse myself in the story at hand and the execution of that plot on display.