film

Old School Review: Andrei Rublev (1966)

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.  

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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

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film

Famous Filmmakers’ Firsts: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962)

*This film came out in 1962, so obviously, spoilers will be involved in this review*

Written by Mikhail Papava and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, “Ivan’s Childhood” is an adaption of Vladimir Bogomolov’s 1957 short story “Ivan” which follows an orphaned twelve year old Russian boy that scouts for the Russian Army on the front lines of the German invasion. This is the most straightforward narrative I’ve seen from Tarkovsky as I haphazardly serpentine through his filmography, it’s also one of his shorter films coming in at a brisk hour and thirty-four minutes. From the beginning dream sequence Tarkovsky is already playing with the surreal nature of dreams that would later become a pillar of his stylistic choices in his grander and more iconic films like “Stalker” and “The Mirror”. In it Ivan, ‘the carefree child’ (Nikolai Burlyaev), observes a spiderweb on a tree branch and a butterfly taking flight, after which he too soars through the air laughing, full of wonder. It doesn’t last long however and we’re soon introduced to Ivan ‘the soldier’ in a violent awakening. He’d been camped out in a dark and decaying windmill and soon wades through a murky swamp shrouded by trees and flares in the distance. The title credits begin to roll and the brooding bleak mood of the film sets in.

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Tarkovsky’s first film steeps us in the director’s philosophy of nature being a respite from the burdens of reality, and his utter despise of war- which is why he pursued the idea of having a war film seen through the eyes of a child, as it was the furthest juxtaposition from war. Ivan makes his way into the Russian military encampment and demands to make contact with high ranking officials. The Lieutenant there, Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov)- himself a young man no older than twenty-five, makes the call despite his suspicions. Lt. Col. Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko) answers and corroborates Ivan’s story. The boy had been a scout for their military on an earlier mission across the river and behind enemy lines. From there the film follows Ivan’s determined quest for revenge, refusing to be shipped off to military school or a children’s home, making extra work for the officers taking care of him- though they do genuinely seem to admire the boy.

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The story also follows a romantic side plot involving a love-triangle of sorts. Galtsev seems to have an unspoken admiration for one of the female military nurses, Masha (Valentina Malyavina). Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) also takes a liking to the quietly defiant field nurse and aggressively pursues her in the birch-wood forest. I was wary of this scene as it was happening, fearing a rape scenario, but luckily it never goes that far. We get the infamous image of Capt. Kholin holding Masha over a trench and kissing her as she reluctantly goes along, but I believe this is simply a case where the scene at hand just hasn’t aged very well, though it doesn’t appear to have malevolent intent as initially assumed. It is, simply put, a product of it’s time.

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The most fascinating aspects of the film for me though are Ivan’s dream sequences. There are four in the film, the opening scene with the butterfly being the first. The next dream sequence comes after Ivan has met Galtsev, been washed and fed, and finally when he can no longer stay conscious enough to keep up his tough guy bravado he falls into a slumber in which we get a brief look into his core philosophy of being. In it the camera flows freely, which is already a visual indicator that we’re in dream territory as the camera is always poised and precise when Ivan is awake. It floats along to a fire of white birch wood before panning back to a bucket near Ivan’s hand laying off the bed as water drips on it. This provokes the camera to tilt upward as if he were at the bottom of a well. Ivan then reappears with his mother, peering over the edge from above and Ivan’s mother tells him something along the lines of “The brightest stars shine best in the blackest of nights.” Ivan tries to reach into the water’s reflection to grab the star and then, after a cut, lies at the bottom of the well again. We quickly see a bucket fall down towards Ivan as he screams for his mother but before we see the bucket fall into the water we cut again to see his mother’s dead body next to the well being splashed with the water from the bottom of the well. This scene is the epitome of why I am fascinated with Tarkovsky’s films. How he uses space and dream logic is endlessly fascinating to me. Reality becomes distorted and spatial relationships are in a state of confusion. Yet all while we’re getting pertinent character information about Ivan and why he is so motivated get revenge.

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The third scene, which is possibly the most strange, depicts Ivan and his sister riding upon a cart filled with apples in a pouring thunderstorm. Here Ivan smiles, he only does this in his dreams, while being surrounded by an abundance of food and family. We see what feels like a camera pan past his sister’s face three times, but only she is moving from right to left within the frame, and she’s completely dry (even in the rain) the third time she passes by. The dream ends as the cart continues to ride off the path and onto a beach leaving a trail of apples. The camera slows and lets the cart fade away as we focus on wild horses feasting on the spilled fruit in the foreground. The final dream sequence connects all to the three previous ones all while poetically reinforcing the idea that Ivan never had a real childhood during his life, it only existed in his dreams. After the audience learns that Ivan’s final mission scouting across the river with Galtsev and Kohlin ended with his death, the dream sequence gives us an abstract and symbolic send off. I believe this scene begins from Galtsev’s perspective during his frantic retrieval of Ivan’s death documents when raiding a German stronghold in Berlin after the fall of the third Reich months later. After he discovers that Ivan had been captured and hung Galtsev runs to another room where he sees wire nooses hung from railings and the camera begins to spin out of control and we see Ivan’s, presumed, dead body rolling along the floor before a hard cut. From a low angle we see Ivan’s mother smiling down at him and he smiles back, now on the beach from the third dream. He rises, shirtless and drinking from the bucket in the second dream, as his mother picks up the bucket and walking back into the water as she waves goodbye to him. Ivan then goes and plays with other children on the beach, it looks like a game of hide-and-go-seek, and he goes to a lone burnt, dead, tree standing in the sand and counts as the other children leave the frame. Even the tree bookends the film visually from the opening dream sequence. When Ivan returns he only finds his sister, and the remainder of the scene is the two of them running wildly into the shallow waters of the ocean laughing heartily- before a hard cut to black ending the film.

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This film was the beginning of Tarkovsky’s film career, and in it you can see the rumblings of a unique cinematic voice forming. While the plot and action of the film are thinner and slower than most, this movie is a good indicator for whether or not you will enjoy the infamous Russian filmmaker’s style. If the abstract sequences turned you off from the story the film was telling, then I must say, you probably won’t enjoy his later works. I approach Tarkovsky’s films with the same mentality that I bring into museums. His films seem to be more akin to seeing visually arresting artwork that plays with the fabric of reality and bends it to whichever way the story feels it should take. It is more about the mood that the images evoke from you than the initial meaning of each scene or the momentum of the story beats.

Final Score: 4 dreams and 1 war