Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is an epic monument of international cinema. Like Mount Everest it is a sight to behold, and often quite as challenging to conquer all the way through. There is plenty to admire and even be stunned by in Tarkovsky’s labor of love, even if the end result is overwhelming.
Soviet cinema was still very crude in the mid-60s and the look of the film seems more primitive than Eisenstein’s footage, but Tarkovsky was as dedicated to his art as his subject was to painting. Andrei Rublev is as much a tribute to Russia’s long history of art triumphing over political suppression as it is a charting of the life of the 15th century iconic painter.
The suppression of creativity by ignorance and tyrannous brutality is evident from the outset when a moronic mob attacks inventors assembling an as yet unidentified creation in the field. But ingenuity wins the day and one of the inventors escapes with the help of a Da Vincian parasail.
Tarkovsky takes some liberties but also has an eye for historical detail. Much like Alexander Nevsky and Leonardo Da Vinci, the life of Andrei Rublev has given way to legend anyway. This gives the film the freedom to elaborate on its biblical allegories.
We first meet Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) as he travels with fellow monks from the Andronikov Monastery Danil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) like the three wise men of the New Testament with as much faith, but not a specific path. References to the Bible will go much deeper in Andrei Rublev including a recreation of the Crucifixion. This works in a film speculating the life of Andrei Rublev, a man who himself devoted his life to illustrating his interpretations of Christianity.
Tone variation is minimal in Andrei Rublev, a somber overcast hangs over the picture persistently. Even the moments of levity, as when a nomadic bungler mocks the traveling monks, are masks to the bleakness. Despite the political upheavals it tosses glances at, Andrei Rublev is a simply told movie. It’s a classic tale of a legend, a monk of meager, even ambiguous origin, leaves his beloved monastery for a higher calling, in this case, painting the Cathedral of Annunciation in Moscow (then a mere village) on request of Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev). But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is enough potency in its images to explain Andrei Rublev’s motivation and doubts about the effectiveness of his art on humanity.
The most valid compliment one can give Tarkovsky is admiration for his bravery. It took a renegade with some sort of conviction to make a film so immersed in Christianity in the Soviet Union. The reaction was not surprising. After a showing in Moscow in 1966, the film was withdrawn and banned for three years, when it was invited to play at Cannes. Since then, the film has only played in snipped and butchered versions until Criterion finally released the full version in 1998.
The depressing disposition of the film is justified and seems fitting for a film that has suffered so badly at the hands of Soviet officials. After taking control, the Soviets made it their personal vendetta to remove all traces of religion and becoming just as oppressive as the czars. Marx’s biggest mistake when composing his manifesto was not laying out the ground rules on how to rule the USSR, leaving a door open for leaders like Joseph Stalin. Indeed, the film’s depiction of Christ carrying the cross, an image of a man dying to make the world a better place, must have struck a powerful chord for Russians in 1966. It is clear that Tarkovsky thought of himself and Rublev as one and he same, especially in their use of religion. Movies have shown a certain fear of touching religion, religious people, and atheists. For a film like Andrei Rublev to be made is a marvel. For it to be produced in the USSR is a miracle.
But Andrei Rublev is not just an allegorical indictment of the Soviet Union. It is not uncritical of Christianity, which had not yet reached all of Europe by the time of the film’s setting in the early 1400s and so there were still some Pagan holdovers. They are introduced in a creepy way, sending corpses upriver in candlelit wooden boxes. Then, they run through the field naked. Probably because this was his sexual awakening, Rublev watches intently. He is captured by Pagans who fear him and for good reason as a later scene shows. Christian militants slaughtered Pagans by the thousands as their power spread.
What are most amazing about Andrei Rublev are the faces of the people. If a photography exhibit could be conformed to the medium of film it would doubtless look very much like what Tarkovsky captures on camera here. This helps make Andrei Rublev a mesmerizing film, drawing us into the evolution of the artist. It broke preconceived notions of Russia at a time when they needed to be broken for American audiences, most of which didn’t get to see it (and even then in modified versions) until the early 70s.
The most telling advancement of Rublev’s career is his self-doubt, stemming from his fear to paint “The Last Judgment” for fear of scaring people. The episodic nature of the narrative allows for various historical confrontations that help explain the molding of Rublev as an artist. Many of these are magnificently shot, but the most powerful and harrowing battle is the Tatar invasion in which Mongolian invaders raid the villages.
It’s a brutally disturbing sequence with rape, massacres, and destruction. When the smoke clears and the blood dries up, Rublev learns what Tarkovsky set out to prove, there is always a need for art, especially so when humanity is at its lowest.
As joyous an occasion as the reconstruction of Andrei Rublev to its original glory was, the film could have been shorter. The vastness of the film has a way of weakening its punch. But Tarkovsky’s craft and dedication cannot be denied. They have produced for this film some of the most amazing shots ever created.