Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Russia, 1400 - 1424. Andrei Rublev (Anatolyn Solonitsyn), Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Daniel (Nikolai Grinko) journey from their monastery to Moscow. Sheltering from a storm, they encounter a jester who mocks the monarchy and the church. They witness his arrest and brutal treatment.

Kirill, jealous of Andrei's talent and desperate to make a name for himself, seeks out renowned artist Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev). Theophanes offers Kirill an apprenticeship. Kirill accepts but stipulates that Theophanes must send word to the monastery of his appointment. His attempt at one-upmanship is foiled when the messenger arrives and it is Andrei who is summoned by Theophanes. Kirill leaves the monastery in disgust, accusing his brothers of being more at one with material rewards than with God.

En route to Vladimir, where he is to paint a cathedral. Andrei comes across a pagan celebration. He is troubled by the sight of a naked woman. Later, struggling to paint a fresco of the Last Judgement, Andrei is ridden with self-doubt. Pressure is brought to bear, with a complaint against him being carried to the nobleman funding the project. A mentally deficient peasant woman Durochka (Irma Rausch) - a "holy fool" as the locals deem her - inspires Andrei to complete the work, but as a celebratory and not an apocalyptic scene.

The nobleman's brother, in cahoots with the Tartars, conspires in an attack. Townsfolk shelter inside the cathedral as the Tartars lay waste. The interior of the cathedral is gutted. Andrei intercedes on an attempted sexual assault against Durochka, killing her attacker. Returning to the monastery, Durochka with him, Andrei atones for the killing by taking a vow of silence. Kirill reappears, asking for shelter and forgiveness. Tartars pass by the monastery and Durochka leaves with them. Daniel pleads with Andrei not to forsake his talent and to accept a commission.

Later in life, Andrei is present at the casting of a great bell. The bell-maker is a youth, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who has convinced his patrons that his father passed onto him the secrets of the bell-maker's art before he died. As word draws to completion, the cost having spiralled, Boriska nervously wonders what will happen if the bell doesn't ring. Finally, after the bell has rung beautifully, he collapses in a flood of tears and confesses to Andrei that his father had never actually divulged the art to him. Breaking his vow of silence, Andrei comforts him saying, "We'll travel together. You will cast bells and I'll paint icons."

Tarkovsky and co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky were considering 'Andrei Rublev' even while they were still working on 'Ivan's Childhood' in 1961. Cameras didn't roll on 'Andrei Rublev' until 1965. Two years alone were spent working on the script; as much time again in getting state approval. The original budget was cut by over a third, then ballooned again when adverse weather conditions during location shooting added months to the schedule.

Filming completed in 1966. Tarkovsky's original cut was 205 minutes. 'Andrei Rublev' didn't get an official release in Russia until 1971, by which time it had been shown out of competition at Cannes (in 1969) winning the FIPRESCI prize. So why the delay? The authorities didn't like the brutally realistic depiction of violence in the clashes between the Grand Princes and the Tartars, including scenes of cruelty to animals (some staged, some not). They didn't like the extended running time. And when Tarkovsky stubbornly campaigned against their intended reduction of the length and thematic complexity of his work, they realised that 'Andrei Rublev', for all its period trappings, was autobiographical/metaphorical (it's the story of a spiritual man trying to create art while comprised by the social and political framework of the times) and they didn't like that either.

'Andrei Rublev' was eventually whittled down to 186 minutes. Overseas distributors reduced it further to 140 minutes effectively rendering incoherent a film that is oblique and fragmentary even in its fullest incarnation. A Russian TV screening in 1973 clocked in at 101 minutes, which must have been like watching an edit of 'Shoah' that runs for two and half minutes.

Anyone who has sat through a screening of 'Solaris' only to have the acronym WTF float through their head, will find 'Andrei Rublev' baffling. I've seen it about four times and I love it wholeheartedly - even though its theological underpinnings mean nothing to me as an aestheist - but it's a fucker of a difficult film to engage with. Just writing the 300 words of synopsis which open this review (a palimpsest, by the way, leaving out a cluster of incidents, flashbacks and a wildly metaphorical prologue that is never referenced or revisited for the remaining three hours) required some concentrated surfing of the net for learned articles deconstructing the film.

One of the best pieces I came across was this one, on Filmwell, which describes 'Andrei Rublev' as "the Mount Everest of spiritual film". Kudos to reviewer Ron Reed for perceptively and honestly pointing out that "you can watch for an hour, you might even make it all the way to the end, without being entirely sure which of the grim Russian monks is the title character. They look all alike, and names are really spoken". Without a map of Russia to hand, you'll probably also be baffled by the geography and what seems like an endless series of peregrinations. So transient are Andrei and co. that you could be forgiven for thinking that the monastery is less their sanctuary and place in the world than a God-owned time-share at which they take the occasional break.

A degree-level understanding of 15th century Russian history might help, as well.

Personally, I know little of Russian history beyond reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy when I was in my late teens and laboured under the misapprehension that if it didn't depress the hell out of you it wasn't literature. As I've mentioned already, the theology means as much to me as a bottle of 25-year-old single malt Scotch to a teetotaler. Most of the Tarkovsky's intellectual concerns sail over my head like the balloon at the start of the film.

And yet 'Andrei Rublev' has long been a personal fave. Why? Because of the immensity of it. The film is as much an epic as anything by David Lean, but one forged by a fiery and visceral intelligence - an unflinching depiction of the tortured soul of an artist, an account of a man of faith struggling to produce art in the service of that faith while much of the world around him is violent and filthy and Godless. As such, it is a film of terrible and unforgettable beauty.

The breathtaking transition at the end - from Andrei breaking his vow of silence to comfort the bell-maker, to an astonishing seven-minute sequence in which Tarkovsky's camera explores Rublev's actual canvasses with almost tactile intimacy - is proof positive of the film's greatness: 'Andrei Rublev' is cinema's answer to the novel or the symphony; it is cinema as art.

1 comment:

Aja said...

This is a really lovely, accurate summary, and a great breakdown to use when introducing the film to newcomers. Thank you!