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

Old School Review: The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Written by Nina Agadzhanova and directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein “The Battleship Potemkin” is about a mutiny aboard the Russian battleship during the height of the Russian Revolution of 1905. It is also the first silent film I have reviewed on the blog thus far. This film is so infamous by this point that there is little I can add to the conversation other than regurgitating the film’s numerous technical achievements that so many others have touched upon. If you haven’t given the film a watch before and you’re invested in learning about the history of cinema then I encourage a viewing- especially since it’s only a brisk hour and fourteen minutes long. Otherwise most modern audiences will bore with the lack of dialogue and color, which can edge out one’s attention span, even I had to stay focused during my own viewing.

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The film begins with the Russian ship returning home through the Black Sea from the recent war with Japan. The crew inspect the meat to be used that day and stir the captains and officers to complain of its quality. The ship’s doctor is sought to inspect it and when the camera gets a closer inspection to show the meat squirming with maggots he labels the meat satisfactory. Mutinous boiling rage fills the crew and they refuse to eat. This act of defiance comes to a head as the captain and officers round up the crew asking who is dissatisfied with the food, when a portion stand their ground they are ordered to be shot dead. Vakulinchuk, the voice of the ship’s imminent revolution, shouts above the clamor as the officers raise their guns “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” and thus the raucous mutiny begins. After the crew is victorious the battleship heads to the port of Odessa where the locals have heard of the uprising and feel connected to the hardships of the sailors as the lower classes of society were engaged in revolutionary war. This prompts a swift damnation by the Czar’s elite guard as they march down the steps of Odessa shooting into the crowd creating one of early film’s most infamous scenes.

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After this the crew aboard the Potemkin engage in debate over what to do with the supportive citizenry. Eventually they decide to help and target several locations of importance to the Czar’s government and fire away. This calls the attention of a nearby fleet of unknown allegiance and the remainder of the film is brilliantly played for anxiety with the score and inter-cutting of scenes of preparation for battle on the Potemkin as they go to meet the fleet. In the end the Potemkin glides through the approaching ships’ guard unscathed as they realize that they too are revolutionaries in arms. In doing some light research on the film’s history and how it helped to shape cinema nearly a century ago I read Roger Ebert’s 1998 review and he was right. I had already seen the parody of the massacre on the Odessa Steps years before (ie The Untouchables) seeing the source material. In fact, I will post a link below to his review of the film, which is far more in depth and personal of a review than what I have experienced with Potemkin.

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What is most impressive about the film in my opinion is the use of space in the film. Granted this may have simply been a side effect from having masses of people represent groups and ideals over individualized ‘characters’, but its still years ahead of its time and is even today a bit of a wonder as to how they accomplished this in 1925. This paired with the sheer choreography of hundreds of extras milling about the Odessa Steps and aboard the Potemkin makes for good eye-catching movement. Especially aboard the Potemkin, where the sailors can mill above and below where the main action is focalized- the staging makes for layered movement and gives the impression that the warship is gigantic in scope requiring a village of people for upkeep. The score was also incredibly important here, as the only sound in the film it helps to engage the viewer in the intended feelings of the characters onscreen. The brash and overbearing clash of orchestral audio waves crash as the Czar’s men advance with their rifles drawn, the inherent sadness and grief at the useless killing is portrayed in weeping stringed symphonies, and the finale assuages the audience’s anxieties with triumphant and victorious horns. Altogether “The Battleship Potemkin” is an important piece of cinema’s history while the film’s history itself is also quite fascinating given how many governments across the globe banned it fearing Potemkin‘s call to arms aimed at the masses. If you’re at all invested in cinema’s history, this is one you should see.

 

Final Score: a Mutiny and a Slaughter

Roger Ebert’s 1998 review of “The Battleship Potemkin”:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-battleship-potemkin-1925