I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.
Like a number of his most intriguing films, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov) (U.S.S.R, 1966) may be pretty rough going for the average moviegoer. It’s a slow, deliberate but ravishing 3-1/2-hour* film about Russia’s most famous 15th-century religious icon painter, and explores some pretty heady territory concerning religious devotion, the making of art and the spiritual and/or secular motivations artists have for creating it in the first place.
In a brief prologue, we observe a group of villagers who have managed to rig up a rudimentary hot-air balloon atop a church (the tallest building they could find). As the helpers on the ground are brutally set upon by the local authorities, the delighted passenger howls in delight as he floats above his village, his onlooking neighbors, the river and nearby fields. The flight doesn’t last long, but we learn some quick lessons about creative aspiration and man’s innate longing to transcend his earthbound existence.
In the next scene, we meet three travelers – monk- painters who are making their way to Moscow to research the prospects of plying their trade there: Danil (Nikolay Grinko), Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Andrei Rublev (Anatoliy Solonitsyn). They stop at a small farmhouse to get out of the rain, where a jester is entertaining other locals with ribald songs and poems about the clerics and boyars who keep them poor and miserable. Sure enough, it’s not too long until the critics in the local constabulary swing by to shut him up.
The secular social and political hierarchies of the outside world and the harsh realities thereof for the poor and unconnected everyman are aspects of medieval Russian life from which the monastery has shielded these three. Part of Kirill’s enquiries bring him to the home of Theophanes the Greek, a renowned Muscovite religious painter who engages Kirill in a deep discussion about how, and even if, painting should reflect various degrees of devotion and/or commerce. Kirill is invited to become Theophanes’ new assistant, but Kirill makes a prideful blunder that results in Andrei getting the invitation for the Prince’s commission (for the Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow), not Kirill. Andrei accepts, but Kirill is infuriated and leaves the monastery, and Danil remains behind as well, choosing not to accompany Andrei to Moscow.
As Andrei’s reputation grows, he accepts other commissions, and he battles with himself about what his true role is as a humble devotional artist, and what his subject matter should reflect. But one particular commission, in the town of Vladimir, leads to a tragic set of circumstances that shake both his spiritual core and his artistic future.
Everything Andrei does, everything he aspires to, runs up against elements of the world that force him to question the purposes of what he does and who he is. Is he making art to selflessly express God’s grandeur, for the betterment of his fellow man, or for himself, to feed his own pride, his own sense of purpose? When entire cities can be erased by marauding hordes – men slaughtered, women raped and killed, children traumatized or thrown aside – what’s the point of trying to create anything that will ‘last’? There’s an instructive flashback of himself as a very young assistant to a crew of artists (plaster carvers, painters, etc.) working on a Grand Prince’s estate – when the work is done, the Prince has his men accost them on the road and blind them all to prevent them from ever doing better work for anyone else.
Everything in the film culminates in an extended episode that concludes the film; a marauder prince wishes to have a bell cast, but all of the local metalworkers have fallen victim to the hordes, the plague or starvation. But the young peasant son of a metalworking founder (Nikolay ‘Kolya’ Burlyaev of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’) volunteers to cast their bell, and persuades the skeptical prince’s men to give him the commission. We (and Andrei, who is now an ascetic who has taken an oath of silence) watch him scour the countryside for the right kind of clay for the mold, form crews to dig it out, form larger crews to build the mold, employ even larger crews to work the furnaces to alloy the bronze, and, finally, like the balloon-maker at the start of the film, succeed in creating something he had no business even trying. He’s the perfect extrovert joy-in-the-thing-itself antithesis of everything that Andrei has represented throughout the film, and this profound dichotomy is most certainly not lost on Andrei.
The film, which has been shot in glorious black-and-white by the great Vadim Yusov, now concludes with an in-color survey of Andrei Rublev’s paintings, many of which were presumably created after this revelatory chapter. But that’s the other impressive aspect of Tarkovsky’s film – very little is actually known of Andrei Rublev’s true history outside of his work. Tarkovsky (and Andrei Konchalovsky) have primarily fictionalized this epic-scale survey of Rublev’s life, and his place in the convulsive history of Russia during the 15th century. Taken as a whole, Tarkovsky’s film is a movingly profound investigation of, in many ways, any artist, any spiritually-driven creative person, in any time period. It regularly appears on all-time-best lists (if you’re a ‘list’ kinda person, as I tend to be), quite frequently as number one. If you’ve got the curiosity, and the attention span, to lose yourself in this film, you will be movingly rewarded. This is a film that anyone who loves great movies, who’s unafraid to put in a little work, should slide up near the top of their own list.