Andrei Rublev (1966)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolay Grinko, Nikolay Burlyaev
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: Radiant with an ethereal artistic glow; historically fascinating
Andrei Tarkovsky’s second feature marked the beginning of a period of utter brilliance, success, admiration and creativity for the Russian master. After the less impressive but still chilling and promising Ivan’s Childhood, here Tarkovsky formed one of his greatest films, and one of the best Russian movies I have ever seen, alongside Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin and Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Andrei Rublev is radiant with an ethereal artistic glow, shot beautifully by Tarkovsky and his regular early period cinematographer Vadim Yusov. It presents a story and lets it unfold over long periods of screen time, but manages to make each event historically fascinating and riveting through his unique storytelling and visual presentation ability.
The film presents a memorable period in Russian history, and follows the adventures of the famous titular icon painter, his friends and compatriots, enemies and acquaintences, through several years in the early 15th century. Ongoing invasions by the enemy Tartars result in many rapes, murders and shouts of abuse, and the rivalry between groups can be felt within the picture. It is not only present in the long, brutal invasion sequence; it is an underlying tension present throughout the film, even when the mood is at its calmest. This was a dangerous and turbulent time for the country, and Tarkovsky communicates that beautifully. This is not only one of the most historically accurate depictions of war; it is also one of the most chilling.
Even though a great deal of Tarkovsky’s films deal with war (namely this one, Ivan’s Childhood, The Mirror and The Sacrifice), many of them push the harshness and violence of it to the side. In The Mirror, wartime combat is relegated to flashbacks and stock footage; in The Sacrifice and also Stalker, it is a theme that runs in the background, creating tension and atmosphere, and Ivan’s Childhood, which is more directly about war than any of his other films, contains surprisingly little action. Andrei Rublev is not only the one that takes war most seriously, it is also the most violent. There is one long section of the film which lasts about thirty minutes and consists of a brutal battle in which an entire town is destroyed. There are many shocking images, including one of a horse falling down a flight of stairs, that haunt the memory.
But this is not as dark a film as I have made it sound. The early scenes, and particularly the long and beautiful final act, are like the calm before and after the storm. Sure the war is not over and tension is present, but the characters at least are free to paint and travel and do what makes them happy. The shadow of the villain hangs overhead, but through his majestic icon paintings, Rublev and his crew are able to escape for a while in the surprising beauty of a period through which so much can be seen in images. And although painting itself is not the subject of the film, it is a wondrous activity through which we can sense the character’s happiness and contentment.
The long final sequence of the film, which is what many think of when the words ‘Andrei Rublev’ drift through their mind, is one of aching beauty, terrific pacing and enthralling detail. It involves the attempts of the mad and power-hungry (but ultimately weak, frail and sympathetic) Boriska, in his attempt to build a giant bell to restore glory and sound to the era. There is nothing quite like the sound of a bell ringing; it is a sound that carries with it so many emotions, a wave of life that washes over us and leaves us gasping for breath. At the moment near the end, that so many have been anticipated, when the bell is completed and they attempt to ring it for the first time is a fantastic moment, one of cinema’s most memorable scenes and a truly unforgettable stage of progression and glory in Tarkovsky’s career. It is almost as if the first half of the movie, which focused on the painting of images (which is again referred to in the simply brilliant epilogue) is being juxtaposed with the sound of a bell. Images and sound, which when put together make cinema. This is Tarkovsky’s ode to cinema, an art form he had embraced, and used with his best effort and ability to recreate an interesting story and make it simply extraordinary. Andrei Rublev may seem slow and empty at times, but stick with it. Hearing the sound of the Great Bell makes it all worth it.