Provost's Film Series
November 7, 2001
Once banned in the Soviet Union for its moral and political overtones, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) is now considered a pinnacle of modern Russian filmmaking—and one of the twentieth century’s most significant films. It makes few concessions, however, for the uninitiated. Long and episodic, a tapestry of images, riddles, and tableaus, it can bewilder even as it inspires. Slavic scholar Robert Bird claims that “Andrei Rublev is the most Russian of films, emblematic of what everyone finds so fascinating and maddening in the way Russians do things.” The very premise of the film defies the logic of modern storytelling. Based loosely on the life of the famous Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev, the film depicts a man more content to observe life than to embrace it. For sixteen years, Rublev took a vow of silence—“not an auspicious premise for a movie,” as Bird notes. But Tarkovsky’s film, shot mostly in an atmospheric black-and-white, is more a cinematographer’s vision than an author’s narrative, and this vision is a montage of rare intensity and beauty. “There is only one way of thinking in cinema,” Tarkovsky wrote: “poetically.” Andrei Rublev is the work of a visual poet.
History and Parable
Born near Moscow in 1360, Andrei Rublev was a monk who became a painter, best known for his “Icon of the Holy Trinity.” His works fill many palaces and monasteries, including the Kremlin. He admired the life and teachings of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, founder of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. In an era when Russia was overrun by Mongol invasions and plagued by internal strife, the Monastery was built in hopes that the “contemplation of the Holy Trinity would conquer the hateful fear of the world’s dissensions.” Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” depicts the moment when Abraham and Sarah are visited by three angels, long treated in Christian iconography as a symbol of the Trinity. Gentle, meditative and intense, the angels display an intimacy and unity lacking in medieval Russia. At a time of civil chaos, Rublev’s decision to paint the Trinity was not only an act of piety but also an expression of social hope.
Actually, we know little about the historical Rublev’s life; Tarkovsky’s film is not a conventional biopic, but rather an impressionistic tale about the role of the religious mystic and the artist in a time of social upheaval. Full of dark images of the Tartar raids on the Russian people as well as scenes of pagan festivals, peasant sorrow, and religious cruelty, the film succeeds as an historical portrait of the severity of life in medieval Russia, even as it becomes a parable about the challenges of creating religious art during seasons of alienation and fear. Scores of film critics—prompted in part, by Tarkovsky’s own words—have seen Andrei Rublev as an allegory of the filmmaker’s struggle to be an artist in the Soviet Union. Knowing that Rublev took a vow of silence, Tarkovsky envisions him as an artist without inspiration, as a man who avoids the supreme challenge to paint the Holy Trinity. By evading his art for many years, Rublev enters into a nomadic existence, lingering at the periphery rather than heeding his calling. This is a film about the tug-of-war between pious detachment and spiritual courage.
Structure and Spirit
Rublev’s nomadic life gives the film a loose structure. As Anna Dzenis observes, Tarkovsky’s cinema creates difficulties for many viewers because of the “poetic, sensuous and metaphorical way [he] subverts narrative categories and structures. Andrei Rublev is more aptly described as a fictional fresco linked by poetic rather than narrative logic.” The film’s famous prologue announces the themes of spiritual longing: an anonymous man, like Icarus, tries to soar in a ragged air balloon above the stark horizon of rivers and farms. No sooner does he crash than we see a majestic horse writhe and collapse. The overture captures the desire to rise above the dreary realities of daily existence, even as its bold, hubristic images will contrast Rublev’s long years of profligate inactivity. The boldness returns in the epilogue—after Rublev has broken his silence and renewed his will to paint—as Tarkovsky gives us a cascade of still images from Rublev’s “Holy Trinity.” After over three hours of moody black-and-white, the bright colors of the epilogue, along with the thunder in the background, reaffirm art’s spiritual power. All great art, according to Tarkovsky, is metaphysical, struggling with the “crucial questions” of human existence. “The great function of the artistic image,” he claimed, “is to be a detector of infinity.”
Between the metaphorical prologue and epilogue there are eight episodes based on Rublev’s wanderings. Those episodes follow Rublev as he leaves the monastery with two other monks, Daniil and Kirill. They observe sexual hedonism, debate art, and discuss theology with Theophanes the Greek. They witness the slaughter of innocents in the church and city of Vladimir. Subtitled the “Passion According to Andrei,” the film at once shows us Rublev’s struggle to recover his passion for art and his effort to comprehend the relevance of Christ’s sacrifice for his own desperate time. In a remarkable dream sequence, Rublev envisions Christ carrying his cross across the snow-covered farmlands of medieval Russia, a series of images that borrows heavily from the winter landscapes of Pieter Brueghel. Near the end, many thematic threads in the story come together in an episode about the casting of a great bell. Although the bellmaker has died, his young son Boriska claims to know the secrets of casting. But in the moment of triumph, as the bells rings, the childish bellmaker—a young version of Rublev himself—tearfully confesses that he had never learned his father’s craft. He has acted on faith, courage and madness alone—a confession awakens Rublev from his own spiritual slumber.
Born in 1932, in the Volga countryside of modern Belarus, Andrei Tarkovsky was the son of a famous poet and actress. His parents divorced when he was a child, but he kept a tense relationship with both, occasionally citing his father’s poetry in his screenplays and casting his mother in one film. He studied Arabic in Moscow and geology in Siberia before enrolling in the VGIK Moscow Film School in 1959. Ivan’s Childhood, his first feature, won the Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice Film Festival in 1962. It introduced themes—ethereal landscapes, dreams and memories, freedom and childlike belief—that set Tarkovsky immediately apart from the tradition of Soviet realism. Andrei Rublev as well as succeeding films—Solaris (1972), Mirror (1974), Stalker (1979), Nostalgia (1982), and The Sacrifice (1986)—established Tarkovsky’s reputation as the finest Russian director after World War II. Spending his last years in self-imposed exile in the West, Tarkovsky died of lung cancer in 1986. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman considered him “the greatest” of all filmmakers, an artist who “invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”