(director/writer: Andrei Tarkovsky; screenwriter: Andrei Konchalovsky; cinematographer: Vadim Youssov; editors: N. Beliaeva/L. Lararev; music: Viatcheslav Ovtchinnikov; cast: Anatoli Solonitzine (Andrei Rublev), Ivan Lapikov (Kyril), Nikolai Grinko (Daniel the Black), Nikolai Serguelev (Theophanes the Greek), Irma Raouch (Durochka, The Simpleton), Nikolai Burlyaev (Boriska, 14-year-old), Youri Nasarov (The Grand Duke), Rolan Bykov (Imprisoned Jester); Runtime: 186; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: T. Ogorodnikova; Columbia Pictures; 1966)
“One of the best films about an artist, if not the best.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Andrei Tarkovsky’s first great film was shot when he was 32 (the same age Pushkin completed Eugene Onegin); it’s cowritten by Andrei Konchalovsky. The filmmaker conjures up an historical epoch that’s meant to dramatize a relationship between virtue known intellectually and virtue known in the heart. It’s a medieval epic (the version not censored runs 186 minutes), based on the life of the Russian monk and icon painter Andrei Rublev (Anatoli Solonitzine), who was born in either 1360 or 1370 and died in 1430. Rublev is the noted Russian artist (an obscure figure in the West) who freed Russian art from the rigidity of Greek aestheticism and made the art more distinctly Russian and poetic. His fame rests on the fragments of fresco paintings in the Cathedral at Vladimir, the icon of the Holy Trinity monastery, and an icon of Christ in Glory, painted in Zvenigorod around 1410. It should be noted that an icon is to Russian art its most ancient art form, an object of religious veneration. Film for Tarkovsky is merely a ‘work of art.’ He asks, “Do we in the West believe in the divine any longer? and Is it within the power of art to revive belief in it?”
Tarkovsky has stated that the discursive-didactic premise of the film needs to be “burnt up in its own atmosphere, emerging finally from the ashes as a transparent clarity of the heart.” In Tarkovsky’s moral schema, we confront a lone man’s destiny and follow his loss of faith and eventual redemption. The film’s true power lies in the explosive beauty of the film, if viewed as an historical fresco. It was made under Communist rule (and upon release banned for a number of years) that is “the first and possibly last film to look at the historical culture of Christianity not in terms of a so-called ‘reactionary’ content, but in terms of its own profound inner rightness and grandeur,” as stated by Tarkovsky in an interview in Positif in 1969.
It’s beyond the scope of this review to fully summarize this complex and very lengthy film, instead I will offer as briefly as possible an outline of events. It’s structured in the form of seven separate ‘imaginary’ episodes in the stages of Rublev’s life. It opens with a short prologue that has a frantic peasant paddling across a river to shore, where he disappears in a church tower only to emerge aboard a rudimentary hot air balloon. The inventor soars acrossthe river, while below a group of curious monks and peasants watch. Soon he crashes to the ground but it’s not determined if he survived or not. It then begins the first episode in 1400 and three monks, Rublev accompanied by Daniel the Black and Kyril, take shelter from the rain in a hut crowded with peasants. A jester (Rolan Bykov) entertains by leaping around and singing bawdy songs, when soldiers enter and arrest him. Outside they smash the jester’s head against a tree before carting their unconscious prey away. From hereon the episodes show how a disillusioned Rublev, a man who exhibits carnal desires and struggles to find beauty in such a turbulent world, will ultimately become in Tarkovsky’s eyes a Christ-like figure because he can’t free himself from the suffering of the world. The world the wanderer sees, as he left the safe confines of the monastery, is deformed by Tartar invaders and by the brutality of the Middle Ages. In protest, Rublev takes a ‘vow of silence.’ His intellectual curiosity about Greek art is sated when he abandons his monk traveling companions to work with the famous painter Theophanes the Greek, causing the jealous ire of Kyril for being abandoned. The seventh and final episode takes place in 1423 and has the great scene of the casting of the bell. The 40-minute sequence has some soldiers in their search for the master artisan bell-maker learn from his 14-year old son (Nikolai Burlyaev) that his father is dead. Impulsively the boy tells them he possesses his father’s skills, but he’s lying and tells this to Rublev while in tears after the bell tolls. But the miracle is that the boy casts the giant bell, as the village has invited dignitaries from far away to view the great achievement. The artist is so moved by the boy’s blind faith (the boy reminds him of himself when he was young), that he talks for the first time in years breaking his ‘vow of silence.’ The black-and-white film then turns into Technicolor, which turns into the masterful icon and meadow paintings of Rublev, in one of the most beautiful presentation of art scenes ever done on film. More than anything else, the film shows the inner workings of an artist and his struggles to find his inner worth in a hostile world. One of the best films about an artist, if not the best. A masterpiece.
REVIEWED ON 2/14/2006 GRADE: A+