Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov) A Film by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)
Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is one of the most monolithic tales ever made centering on art and the life of a painter, yet we never once see anyone carrying out the task. The film, set in 15th century Russia against the backdrop of Tartar invasions, follows the wanderings of the titular figure around the destitute pre-revolutionary landscape. He, Andrei Rublev, the great icon painter and monk, is one of Russia's most significant historical and cultural staples. Yet Rublev only figures tangentially into the equation in the finished film. Amidst a populace of bearded, long-faced men doused in wool robes, Rublev frequently meshes into the locale, sometimes even confused by other characters. It is not until Rublev mistakenly murders a man during the Tartar catastrophe that envelops the cathedral of Vladimir and therefore takes a vow of silence that he manages to delineate his presence among the crowd of austerely Christian, art-obsessed peers. A cataloging of the artistic process, it becomes evident, is not what Andrei Rublev is after; rather, Tarkovsky places emphasis on the holy necessity of art, its ability to shape a culture and mindset, and how its existence is plagued in the face of oppressive authorities.
Tarkovsky himself dealt with a fair share of the latter whilst getting the film produced and distributed. Andrei Rublev is a famous example of the dominance of Soviet Communism over personal artistic statements, bushwhacking its way through several years of censorship episodes, denied screening repeatedly at Cannes until it was eventually given an unfavorable nod at 4 AM on the final day. The film was first exposed internationally in the early 70's, and still it was met with shaky critical reactions. At an unwieldy three-and-a-half hours, Tarkovsky weaves together eight chronologically discontinuous chapters in a remarkably cogent tone of silence, natural sounds, quiet operatic music, and extended musings on art, religion, and history. This is, perhaps detrimentally in many instances, a stark and uncompromising vision. The film is more ascetic than most of Tarkovsky's work and is, by virtue of its historical rigorousness, rambling narrative, and painstakingly detailed, lugubrious scenes of human interaction, often a chore to get through. Most films, even those that lack narrative, offer something at their core to compel the viewer to move forward - an undefinable mystery, a hint at payoff, a guileless energy on the part of the filmmaker - and its not that Andrei Rublev lacks this ineffable quality, but its very difficult to detect.
Ultimately, what kept me hanging on in the film's opaque, intellectually unrelenting structure, was the scattered bouts of inarguably beautiful sequences. A practice of witchcraft held by nude, torch-bearing pagans at dusk, the opening prologue detailing a man determined to the chagrin of his fellow soldiers to take flight on his own sketchily wrought hot air balloon, the shockingly brutal and arrhythmic attack of the sneering Tartars on the monastery, a contemplative afternoon in the bleached cathedral where Rublev refuses to paint "The Last Judgement", the visual mirror of this scene when snow falls on its now corpse-littered floor, and the final chapter when a mad young boy leads a horde of men through the physically demanding process of building a bell. Tarkovsky's signature use of poetic imagery is less ubiquitous, but no less affecting: spilled paint oozing into a river, a slow motion image of a horse rolling around in grass, a young boy descending into a flowing stream after being shot with an arrow. What also comes across in each frame is Tarkovsky's immense sincerity and his true belief in the film's themes - pantheism, cultural divides (between the secular and the mystical, the male and the female, and inactive and proactive lifestyles) and faith among them. After all, Rublev himself can be viewed as Tarkovsky's surrogate, struggling with the same crises, both politically and spiritually.