Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky 1966) – BlogalongaRusskie #2
In June, I set myself the challenge of watching one Andrei Tarkovsky film every month until the end of the year, to coincide with the release of Artificial Eye’s release of The Andrei Tarkovsky Collection on DVD.
As for me, I’ve already looked at Tarkovsky’s debut Ivan’s Childhood (1962), now here’s his follow-up…
(Andrei Tarkovsky, Rus, 1966)
Ever wondered how medieval Russians forged those big bronze bells? Wonder no more. How they painted transcendental, inspiring icons in miserable times? Pure faith
So, Andrei Tarkovsky. The guy with the reputation for being an austere misery-guts. Intense, serious, unhappy. Concerned with the plight of mankind and the unanswerable mysteries of life. A largely laugh-free zone. And yes, Andrei Rublev is all of these things. It is also one of the boldest, most transcendental films I can remember seeing – spiritual and uplifting, not especially in a religious sense but for the sheer cinematic verve and power of the film.
There can be few instances in the history of film where a director has made such a quantum leap forward from first to second feature. Ivan’s Childhood is fine but it’s a typical debut, conventional and manageable – a short story, a genre film, a character study. Andrei Rublev multiples and complicates all of these aspects. It is, in its chapter-driven composition, not one but lots of short stories. It’s a character study…but one whose main character disappears for whole swathes only to reappear as a distant observer. And it is kinda, sorta a genre film, as if the Russians had heard about America Westerns and imagined how they’d look if one was set in the snow and mud of 15th Century Russia.
Tarkovsky’s mastery is to take you to that place. No Western ever had such authenticity; this is one of those rare period films where you can forget the pull of the camera and immerse yourself in historical life – no mean feat given this director’s penchant for huge, elegant, complex tracking shots. But the images Tarkovksy films feel chiselled from the earth and carved from granite, the events staged with incomprehensible, overwhelming detail. Just when you think the film’s mid-point set-piece – the sacking of a town by Tartar hordes – cannot possibly be bettered for logistical realism and scale, Tarkovsky spends the last hour recreating the conditions of how they created huge bronze bells in medieval times, lovingly cataloguing every inch of the labour, the science, the bravura madness involved in its construction. It’s hard not to think of Andrei Rublev as Tarkovsky’s own bell, a film that invites you to appreciate just how damn hard it must have been to make.
For a director with a reputation for spiritual airiness, this is a tangible film, with a physicality you can touch and a sound design that surrounds with birdsong, screams and – yes – the tolling of that bell. And this is the mastery of the film. With impeccable but understated irony, the bell-maker stands as a surrogate for Rublev himself, who barely picks up a paintbrush for the film’s three hour running time. So while most films about artists are obsessed with the art, this displacement allows Tarkovsky to ruminate on the wider conditions of creating art, both in terms of the society (the religion, the politics, the travel and the clothes) and the interior life of the artist who must find it within himself to paint icons that commune with God, when he sees only despair and barbarity on his travels.
Tarkovsky plays a waiting game. It is only in a solemn, moving epilogue at the end that we finally see Rublev’s work – and in saturated colour after a film defined by an austere, gray palette. Typically, the icons are just as tactile as the rest of the film, the surfaces mottled and worn by the centuries but the overall images still robust and vivid. So while there’s no explicit correlation between these images and the stories Tarkovsky tells to reveal Rublev’s mindset, there’s an impressionistic link, a sense of sadness that makes the sorrowful look of Rublev’s Jesus not only understandable but inevitable. Ordinarily, the plot of Andrei Rublev – an episodic, nomadic journey from town to town, year to year – would be described as picaresque, but that implies laughter. This film only gains humour with the arrival of the bell caster, played by Ivan’s Childhood’s feral, mischievous star, Nikolai Burlyayev. Until then, the film is defined by the severe, haughty presence of Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei, a poster boy for art-house intensity.
And yet the episodes thrill through Tarkovsky’s incredible image-making – pagans running naked through the wood, a man escaping Tartars on a prototype hot-air balloon, a horse falling off a flight of stairs. Some of the shots are mind-boggling in their timing and composition, like the unexpected flight of birds against a backdrop of rape and pillage, or the moment Rublev’s boat cuts across the path of a swimming woman, the camera then rising up and wide to reveal the woman’s isolation now that Rublev, almost uncannily, has disappeared. For all the weighty theological debate and intricate symbolism you’d associate with Tarkovsky, the film accumulates its complexity in a remarkably simple way – by piling on experiences that Rublev (and, by extension, us) will never forget.
BlogalongaRusskie with Andrei Tarkovsky returns in August with Solaris.