Andrei Rublev

(Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1966): As ravishing as Lawrence of Arabia yet infinitely more inscrutable and ambitious, Andrei Tarkovsky’s second film aims to place the making of art both in the context of sweeping historical forces and insurgent spiritual resistance. As notorious for its troubled release history — Soviet officialdom struggled vainly to prevent its international distribution for years — as for its passages of flinching brutality, it was nevertheless almost instantly marked as a masterpiece and established the 32 year old son of a Russian poet as a modernist auteur of the first order.

Andrei Rublev was a fifteenth-century religious icon painter who established a standard of sacred representation that eventually became enforced as a kind of ordained religious house style. Not much is known about who he was or how he lived, and in this Tarkovsky is scrupulously faithful to the scant record. While his movie is explicit in some leaps of dramatic and historical speculation, it’s also deliberately evasive when it comes to filling in any blanks about its spiritually struggling subject that don’t pertain to its prevailing agenda of placing and art and the artist as almost necessary and inevitable expressions of transcendent human will. Rublev’s journey from ascetic, self-muted observer of suffering to creator of inspirational imagery — which, in the film’s three-hour plus running time, we never see him actually painting — is offered by Tarkovsky as proof that art may well be as unstoppable as history itself, and that one indeed might be inextricably synergistic with the other. Needless to say, this suggestion had immediate as well as period application: if Rublev’s art was the natural response of the Holy seeker when Russia was torn between Christianity, paganism, Tatar invasions and feudal power structures, Tarkovsky’s own sprung out of fifty years of Soviet communism, a Stalinist childhood and the ominous apocalyptic drum beat of the Cold War.

Divided into seven chapters bookended by a suggestively mysterious opening — in which a pursued man soars above a stricken landscape in a primitive, hand-crafted hot-air balloon, only to crash earthward toward a freeze-frame at the instant of impact — and a montage of Rublev’s iconography that marks the movie’s only burst of colour, Andrei Rublev is at once a stylistic tour-de-force and a resolutely obscure exercise in interpretive ambiguity. While some of the chapters focus chiefly on Rublev (a first appearance by Tarkovsky stalwart Anatoliy Solonitsyn), others nudge him into the status of background character or observer. Perspective is therefore as ungrounded and omniscient as Tarkovsky’s often startlingly fluid and airborne camera, and psychology is firmly placed at a distance almost as far as some of the landscapes that seem to stretch to eternity. Gorgeously poetic imagery — a horse rolling on the ground in slow motion, a dove soaring above a sacked city, snow falling in a ruined church, clear streams turning milky white — is juxtaposed with blunt brutality (the sequence of the Tatar ransacking of a town is as excruciatingly protracted and graphic as anything you’ll see in Game of Thrones), yet even the almost hallucinogenic sense of instability suggested is somehow grounded in Tarkovsky’s almost Sputnik-like long view of unfolding world-historical events. No one has ever taken continuous long shots to quite the breathtaking, immaculately meticulous heights that Tarkovsky has, and rarely has any other filmmaker managed to strike a balance between being so stubbornly elusive yet immediately visceral and sensually suggestive.

Certain sequences stand out with such insistent independent power they almost qualify as more than fully realized cinematic experiences all on their own: Rublev’s black-magical encounter with naked pagans in a forest, the horrific razing of the city of Vladimir, the final ringing of the bell painstakingly assembled by a crew working on a tight deadline and under the command of plague-orphaned bell-maker’s son who may be divinely inspired, crazily obsessed or both. Collapsing to the ground in exhaustion over getting the job done, he admits he really had no idea what he was doing. His father had died before sharing the secret of bell-making with his son, and what we have just seen was an especially epic act of intuitive spiritual faith. An echo, it would seem, of that man in the balloon way back at the beginning. Witnessing this astounding feat of fearless human will and evidence of something like God rising out of the mud, and in synch with the bell’s tolling, Rublev’s long vow of silence is ended. Finding him on the ground, he joins forces with the boy: “You’ll cast bells and I’ll make icons.” The sprawling 2.35:1 frame then nearly explodes with colour, and the film ends with a contemplation of the art the preceding events have presumably liberated from an artist’s tortured but duly ignited spirit. (Criterion)

 

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