It took six years for Andrei Tarkovsky’s somber epic Andrei Rublev to be publicly released in the former USSR. By the time people flocked to sold-out Moscow theaters in 1971—nine years after Tarkovsky’s feature debut Ivan’s Childhood nabbed the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice Festival, and six after Rublev’s production wrapped in 1965—the cultural Thaw granted under Khrushchev’s leadership had frozen over. Judged too controversial by Soviet authorities—all the more so as the USSR braced for the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution—the film was shelved after a single screening at Moscow’s Dom Kino, chopped from 205 to 186 minutes (a version Tarkovsky would later approve) and only sent abroad in 1969, when Cannes squeezed it in a 4:00 am out of competition screening that earned Tarkovsky the edition’s FIPRESCI award.
For audiences nurtured on bombastic patriotic epics concerned primarily with the need to trace a genealogy of the USSR’s might back to pre-Soviet heroes, Andrei Rublev was a head-scratching outlier. Ostensibly a biopic of Russia’s greatest icon painter, Tarkovsky’s film follows its eponymous character (circa 1360 – 1430) as he struggles to practice his craft among famines, wars and internecine strife in the early 15th century Vladimir region. Far from providing a positive socialist hero whose “creativity and humanism” were inspired by “the people” as bearers of “national liberation and social protests” (in the words of V.G. Pashuto, the film’s official historical consultant, who had first hailed Tarkovsky’s original script and later scorned the feature’s final cut), the Andrei Rublev that Tarkovsky portrayed is much less the embodiment of a glorified people than a man utterly alienated by a war-stricken country.
A two-part tale spanning 23 years in the painter’s life, Andrei Rublev unfolds as a series of episodes—eight, plus a prologue—chronicling the artist’s rise to fame from young monk in an remote Orthodox monastery to revered painter courted and hired by Russian royalty—the sublimation of an icon painter into an icon of his own right. To be sure, “the people” Pashuto and others understood as the ultimate source of Rublev’s inspiration are not overlooked. Andrei may well be at the film’s center, but there are moments when the feature feels like a multi-character canvas, with Tarkovsky pausing his protagonist’s storyline to follow other characters, be they fellow monks, peasants, priests, artists. But the humanity surrounding the painter, far from being depicted as a monolithic engine for revolutionary struggle, emerge more as a collection of fragile individuals struggling to survive in a gruesome, godless world.
Andrei Rublev clocks its 186 minutes without anybody ever picking up a brush, but Tarkovsky fills the gap with a sinuous directing and majestic mise en scène that add to it a virtuosic painting-like quality. Crane-mounted tracking shots feel like long brushes over large tableaux (a feeling aided by Vadim Yusov’s cinemascope black and white photography), while hundreds of extras give the snowy Russian landscapes a fittingly nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch vibe. Horror abounds in Andrei Rublev—a striking fact for anyone familiar with Tarkovsky’s canon. Orthodox Christians torture misbelievers and are eventually victims of persecutions themselves; marauding Tatars ransack churches and pillage villages; the bodies of agonizing monks are tied to horses and dragged around besieged cities; artisans have their eyes gouged out; women are kidnapped and raped; and even the morally impeccable Andrei commits a heinous crime that haunts him for much of Rublev’s second part, and forces him to take a vow of silence as a means to atone.
It is no wonder Soviet authorities would point their finger at the excessive display of gore—a gritty depiction of medieval Russia that some contemporary critics, as reported in the seminal study by Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie, felt imbued with a “disgusting physiological naturalism.” But this does not mean, pace Pashuto and other Soviet critics who scolded Andrei Rublev’s alleged anti-Russian sentiment, that Tarkovsky’s Rublev does not draw inspiration from “the people.” Quite the opposite.
Andrei Rublev only begins to zero in on his eponymous character some 35 minutes after the opening credits. Hired as assistant by another revered icon painter of the time, Theophanes the Greek (Nikolay Sergeyev), Andrei (played by then relatively unknown Anatoli Solonitsyn, who would later take on roles in Tarkovsky‘s Stalker, The Mirror and Solaris, among others) starts off as a firm believer in humanity’s potential to forget—if not outright erase—and transcend evil. In a pivotal episode whose title had originally served as a provisional one for the whole feature, The Passion According to Andrei, the young artist reproaches the older Theophanes for embracing an all-too-dark vision of humanity, wherein a looming Judgement Day people would betray each other in an each-against-all Hobbesian apocalypse. “Humanity has already committed every stupidity and baseness,” complains Theophanes, “and now it only repeats them.” Against the old master’s eternal nihilistic recurrence, Andrei professes a belief in people’s potential to do good, as a whole, and resist all misfortunes.
By the time Theophanes makes his last appearance, however, things have taken a dramatic U-turn. Andrei is among the few survivors of a joint attack waged by the Grand Prince’s brother and Tatar forces against the city of Vladimir: stranded in a deserted, half burnt church, dead bodies piled up all around him, the painter sees the ghost of his old master, and bursts into tears. “I’ve spent half my life in blindness. I worked for people day and night—but they aren’t people, right?”
It takes Andrei another 15 years to restore his belief in humanity, and to be able to paint again. Faithful to a remark he had made during that first altercation with Theophanes—how could one ever paint if one thinks so little of fellow humans?—Andrei gives up his craft (and voice) the moment he no longer recognizes the people around him as his own, and only changes his mind upon witnessing the miraculous feat of a teenage bell maker, Boriska, who is hired by the Grand Prince to craft a new bell for the city’s cathedral, and pulls off the mission with sheer determination, intuition and faith. It is Rublev’s eighth and final episode: Andrei now reduced to a silent observer, Tarkovsky follows the young boy as he persuades the adults around him to follow his vision, and against all odds, succeeds. A single breath-taking shot encapsulates the teenager’s transition into a near-otherworldly dimension; the smelted metal pouring into the bell’s cast in the dead of night—the liquid running like lava into a ditch—the boy stands alone among grownups ready to punish his hubris, and yet puts on a dignified look that follows him until the next day, when the Grand Prince rides to see the new bell, sneers at the teenager’s destitute looks, and waits for the bell to toll before carrying on.
Gaunt, sleep deprived and starved, Boriska may not exactly embody the vibrant, unshakably strong narod Soviet critics had hoped to see celebrated on screen, but this speaks more of the myopic lens with which Andrei Rublev was studied by several Soviet critics in the 1960s, than a failure on Tarkovsky’s part to understand the relationship between artist and people. Artistic creation, in Andrei Rublev as in the rest of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre, does not happen in a vacuum. “An artist is society’s conscience,” Tarkovsky said of his second feature in a 1967 interview, “it is its most sensitive organ, the most perceptive to what occurs around it.” By the time Andrei consoles a sobbing Boriska, the bell’s tolls reverberating across the land, the link between artist and humanity is restored, and creation can take place again: “Let’s go together, you and I,” a rejuvenated Andrei tells the boy, “you’ll cast bells, I’ll paint icons.”
That Tarkovsky’s rendition of Andrei Rublev did not align with the USSR authorities’ expectations of what an ante litteram Soviet hero would act and look like should not sound surprising either. From Solaris’ Kelvin to the figure of the Stalker, Tarkovsky’s protagonists are often introduced as beguilingly meek men who slowly emerge as strong, defiant, courageous heroes. Andrei Rublev is no different. The icon master is first portrayed as a profoundly fragile thirty-something—a touching early exchange with fellow monk and painter Danil (Nikolai Grinko) ranks high among the film’s most empathetic moments—who spends much of his old age meandering around a famine-plagued land in a state of perpetual, silent watch. But inasmuch as he is capable of withstanding the violence he witnesses, and far more importantly, insofar as he is able to transcend it through art, Andrei stands out as an emblem of resilience. “He [Andrei Rublev] reveals himself to be the strongest,” Tarkovsky told Italian poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra in a 1979 interview, “because he knows how to bring with him, through his terrible biography, the thirst for creation.”
Watching Andrei Rublev nearly fifty years after that first public screening in Moscow, I wonder whether the same could be said of Tarkovsky himself. While Soviet critics focused on the historical incongruities between real life Rublev and Tarkovsky’s portrait, Western commentators addressed the allegories between Andrei Rublev’s subject and its creator. If Tarkovsky had hailed the icon painter as a symbol of artistic freedom against the backdrop of a repressive regime—creativity crushed under the yoke of religious dogmatism and a blood-thirsty nobility—the director too looked like an emblem of that same struggle: an artist whose vision was suddenly threatened by the intensification of cultural repression in the post-Khrushchev era. Personal allegories cannot serve as Andrei Rublev’s sole reading, but they do underscore a preoccupation that runs through most of Tarkovsky’s second feature, and informs his canon as a whole: what exactly ought to be the responsibility of an artist toward their community?
Which brings us back to the start. Andrei Rublev opens with a prologue that was originally meant to introduce the feature’s second part. It is a scene that, at least on a cursory viewing, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of Rublev’s epic. A man tries to fly away on a hot air balloon, but is held back by a multitude of people who flock to attack the monstrous (and possibly never seen before) invention. The balloonist manages to escape, but his flight is too short lived. It is a 5-minute display of superb filmmaking, the camera floating several meters above the ground in a breathtaking point-of-view reminiscent of the dream sequence opening Fellini’s 8 ½, and it encapsulates the artist’s jump beyond the beaten track, a leap into the unknown that stands as a challenge to the authority and conformism. Recalling the myth of Dedalus certainly does feel appropriate here, if anything for the flight’s ending, but the thirst for knowledge and the challenge to dogmatism embodied by the inventor owes a lot to Dante’s Ulysses, too.
What that “jump beyond” translates into, in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, is a need to do away with the idea that artists should be cowed into obedience by the Church and State, and that art should merely expose human weakness. “In artistic creation, the personality does not assert itself,” Tarkovsky had warned in his Sculpting of Time, “it serves another, higher and communal idea.” Both the icon master and the director are all too aware they do not enjoy absolute freedom under the scrutiny of higher power structures. But they also firmly reject the socialist realist dogma that the artist’s role should be confined to illustrate “truth” in a stylistically pleasing manner. Here’s what is possibly the greatest single allegory linking the director to the icon painter: a shared understanding that an artist’s responsibility toward their community is to constantly question and problematize the state of things. Each the conscience and most sensitive organ of the societies they lived in, Rublev and Tarkovsky did so with unmatched grandeur.