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.
Final Score: 1 Bitter Jester & 3 Monks