“…if we accept objective existence of the reflection— reflecting as it is given, we are obliged to conceive a mode of being different from that of the in-itself, not a unity which contains a duality, not a synthesis which surpasses and lifts the abstract moments of the thesis and of the antithesis, but a duality which is unity, a reflection which is its own reflecting.”
“Nothing is more terrifying than snow falling in a church.”
Are you tired of understanding everything you watch? Has analyzing the convoluted symbolism of Ingman Bergman films become mere child’s play for you? Are you jaded by Jodorowski? Fatigued by Fellini? Are you in the position of Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, needing to be reminded that there are still things in heaven and earth undreamt of in your philosophies? Have your friends caught you enjoying Being and Nothingness and The Phenomenology of Mind when you thought no one was looking? Do you get the point of every single Far Side comic you read?
Well, have I got the movie for you.
The title is Andrei Roublev. The director is Andrej Tarkovski. The experience is truly out of this world. Flying saucer conspiracy buffs would probably label this man’s work proof of alien intelligence.
I first saw the films of Andrej Tarkovski when I was living in Paris in the early 1980s. At the time, Paris was about the only city cinema-crazy enough to feature his work regularly on the big screen. It didn’t hurt that just down the street from where I was going to school was the cavernous Soviet Film Theatre which, as you might guess, was devoted to first run screenings of officially approved Soviet films. While some of the daily fare consisted of lugubrious comedies, dubious histories, and anemic classics, one soon came to realize that Russian cinema was very much alive. That Tarkovski’s films were ever passed by the Soviet censors can only be explained by the fact that they didn’t understand them, and were too embarrassed to admit it. I freely admit my confusion, but the Tarkovski movies were a revelation for me. They were unforgettable in the same way that the first encounter one has with the great films of Bergman and Fellini is unforgettable. These directors accomplish the total transformation of the film medium into Something Else. They have found the alchemical stone which transmutes the collective work of dozens, even hundreds of actors & technicians into a personal vision so unique it might as well have been recorded on location in the director’s brain.
The first Tarkovski film I saw was not Andrei Roublev. It was Solaris, the second strangest, and most haunting, science fiction film I have ever seen. The prize for the strangest science fiction film of all time goes to another Tarkovski movie, Stalker, made after both Solaris and Andrei Roublev. My reviewing Stalker would present an interesting challenge—roughly comparable to my getting in the ring with a Japanese sumo wrestler. Except with less chance of success.
Andrei Roublev is “Introductory” Tarkovski. There’s actually a bit of straightforward narrative. The second to last Act is a powerful story, impossible to forget once seen, of a young boy and the casting of a great church bell. If the preceding 145 minutes of daunting, Dostoevskian metaphysics set against the rudimentary, Bruegelian peasant life of medieval Russia (circa 1400) overloads a few neurons, the bell story avoids a total meltdown. Ostensibly the story of a wandering icon painter, most of Andrei Roublev is a voyage through a bleak landscape of random violence, dispossession, plague and madness where it seems no bird can sing. Sort of like the New York City of Taxi Driver. With the exception of the final ten minutes, the film is shot in stark black and white which reinforces the harshness of the land and the cruelty of the stories. Harshness and cruelty which the viewer could handle for three and a half hours if one bird, somehow, despite everything, did not sing, and sing gloriously. (Again, sort of like New York City.) Andrei Roublev himself is one such unlikely “bird” (the film closes with the glorious, blazing colours of the fragments of the real Roublev’s work still in existence), and the young bellmaker is another. Humanity has an amazing, utterly irrational, power to transcend despair.
There can even be humour:
“I hear you paint quickly?”
“Yes. Once I took a week, and it was no good.”
“Did you destroy it?”
“No, I used it to press cabbage.”
Along with the major paradoxes arc the minor mysteries. Why, in a Russian film subtitled in English, are all the title cards in Italian? What is the point of the balloon? Does everyone have a problem telling grim, bearded Russian actors apart, or just me? Did the genius who translated (maybe) 50% of the Russian dialogue into feeble white subtitles on a black & white background never hear the joke about the polar bear in the snowstorm?
Mere quibbles. One of the characters in Andrei Roublev remarks that great art must exemplify “simplicity without bravado”. Tarkovski proved him wrong more than once. In Roublev, Solaris, Stalker, and The Silence this artist reveled in complexity with panache.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly I found myself standing at the door of a room, the keys to which, until then, had never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without know how. Tarkovsky is for m the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” –Ingmar Bergman
“The Last Judgement is coming—we’ll burn like candles.”
My most recent viewing of Andrei Rublev was an odd experience. A bit of a rough ride, really. Part of the problem might have been the three and a half hour running time. I wound up watching the film over three days. Part of the problem is I’m getting older, and tend of doze off in the evenings if I’ve had a busy day. But there were other issues.
Although Criterion versions of films are usually impeccable, the transfer of Andrei Rublev isn’t. When I projected it onto a large screen, the film was letterboxed on all four sides, with the subtitling so dominant on the bottom black-out screen that it distracted from the movie. Sometimes just overlaying the subtitles on the actual film is a better way to go. The formatting completely killed the epic feel of the film. I wound up watching most of it on a large-screen TV, where I could “stretch” the image to fill the screen. That’s probably a violation of all sorts of sacred rules of screen integrity, but it looked a heckuva lot better than in a black box.
Also missing this time around was some of the sense of awe & wonder I recall from previous viewings. One reason would have been the formatting issues I just mentioned. Another was a greater awareness of the episodic nature of the storytelling. There are powerful scenes, but they didn’t always flow together as well as I might have hoped. Part of the problem might be the film’s length; there are a couple of scenes in particular (the false reconciliation of the two Russian princes; the Tartars’ toying with the mute girl) that struck me this time around as unnecessary or unnecessarily prolonged. Other scenes (the crucifixion in the snowy landscape, the fool’s performance, the forging of the bell) were as great, or even greater, than I recalled them being, but they stood on their own merits. There is nothing in Rublev that binds the film together the way that, say, the chess game between Death and the Knight in Bergman’s Seventh Seal links that films potentially episodic scenes.
That said, the crucifixion is a visual marvel. It’s as if Pieter Bruegel turned up in the 20th century to make a short film. The marvellous black & white cinematography (by Vadim Yusov) of Christ carrying his cross across snow-bound hills calls to mind Bruegel’s winter scenes: The Numbering at Bethlehem, Massacre of the Innocents, and Hunters in the Snow. A fitting parallel, given that Bruegel’s work came little more than a century after Andrei Rublev’s. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Hunters in the Snow turns up in Tarkovsky’s Solaris.)
The scenes of the forging of the great bell by the way-out-of-his-depth young bellmaker’s son will always remain one of my favorite moments in world cinema. Like seeing the constructing one of the great Gothic cathedrals in miniature, watching that great bell come into existence who can help but be awed by the ability of human beings, with only the most basic of tools, to create works on a divine scale.
The color close-up photography of Rublev’s actual works that closes the film is worth the price of admission. After all of that unremitting black and white, the human spirit is reborn. One can understand why his name has been remembered even though so few of his works have survived.
Having recently watched Amadeus again, I also clued into the Kirill vs. Rublev subplot in a way I hadn’t done in the past. It’s Salieri and Mozart all over again, only this time around Kirill’s poisonous envying of Rublev’s artistic gifts does nothing but wreck his own life.
Some of Tarkovsky’s symbols, found in his other films, remain potent: grasses moving beneath flowing water, old trees, horses (ridden free or abused). It’s hard to say why horses are so effective in his movies—perhaps it’s that they seem nobler than the human around them, wracked by self-doubt or scrabbling for sheer survival. (Does the disclaimer that “no animals were hurt during the making of this film” apply to Rublev? Tarkovsky has apparently insisted that it does, but it’s hard to believe.) The trees are links to pre-Christian times, sacred loci of power & worship.
The episodes of Tartar violence seem, by today’s standards, somewhat cartoonish and sporadic in intensity. Recent television serials such as Marco Polo, The Borgias, and Game of Thrones have set the bar quite high when it comes to bringing the violent side of history to life (even when, as in Game of Thrones, it’s invented history). I did love it when the Tartar chief apologized to his Russian lapdog for being late: “I couldn’t resist sacking a small town on my way here.” It’s a line worthy of Monty Python.
The scene with the naked, pleasure-seeking pagans and their persecution by the powers-that-be is equally unconvincing. But I know nothing about medieval Russian religious history, and perhaps such bacchanalian goings-on did indeed have their Slavic expressions. If so, the advent of Orthodox Christianity would have been a death sentence for the celebrants.
I also have a bone to pick with the lack of any roles for women in Rublev that don’t show them as victims and/or holy fools. This is definitely a man’s world. It’s Christ Pantokrator’s stern face we see in the icons, not Mary’s gentler one.
I’m currently reading a couple of Tarkovsky’s own books on cinema. Perhaps when I’m done I’ll have more insights into Andrei Rublev. Tarkovsky thought as deeply about film as did his compatriot Sergei Eisenstein. Their erudite reflections are no walk in the park. I’ll close with an excerpt from Sculpting in Time, where Tarkovsky addresses a central theme of Rublev:
“As Hermann Hesse says in The Glass Bead Game, ‘Truth has to be lived, not taught. Prepare for battle!”….Indeed, Hesse’s words quoted above could well serve as an epigraph to Andrey Rublyov.
Underlying the concept of Andrey Rublyov’s character is the schema of a return to the beginning; I hope this emerges in the film as the natural and organic progression of the ‘free’ flow of life created on the screen. For us the story of Rublyov is really the story of a ‘taught’, or imposed concept, which burns up in the atmosphere of living reality to arise again from the ashes as a fresh and newly-discovered truth.
Trained in the Monastery of the Trinity and St Sergius, under the tutelage of Sergey Radonezhsky, Andrey, untouched by life, has assimilated the basic axiom: love, community, brotherhood. At that time of civil strife and fratricidal fighting, and with the country trampled underfoot by the Tartars, Sergey’s motto, inspired by reality and by his own political percipience, summarised the need for unity, for centralisation, in the face of the Mongol-Tartar yoke, as the only way to ensure survival and achieve national and religious dignity and independence.
The young Andrey received these ideas intellectually; he was brought up on them, had them drummed into him.
Once outside the walls of the monastery he is confronted by a reality that is as unfamiliar and unexpected as it is appalling. The tragic nature of that time can be explained only in terms of a culmination of the need for change.
It is easy to see how ill-equipped Andrey was for this confrontation with life, after being protected from it within the rarefied precincts of the monastery, from which he had a distorted view of the life which stretched out far beyond it….And only after going through the circles of suffering, at one with the fate of his people, and losing his faith in an idea of good that could not be reconciled with the reality, does Andrey come back to the point from which he started: to the idea of love, good, brotherhood. But now he has experienced for himself the great, sublime truth of that idea as a statement of the aspirations of his tormented people.
Traditional truths remain truths only when they are vindicated by personal experience….When I think of my years as a student, when I was preparing to enter the profession in which evidently I am destined to remain for the rest of my days, and in the light of my working life today, the experience of those student years seems pretty strange…”
And here’s what Sister Wendy Beckett, in her wonderful book Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, had to say about the subject of Tarkovsky’s film:
“Rublev is far and away the greatest of the icon painters. The icon must follow a rigid pattern, without any attempt at a unique interpretation of the divine ministry. In such a context, the genius of Rublev shines all the more brightly. He observed the rules, and yet his work is unmistakable in its strength and spiritual insight….There is a sense in which it is inappropriate to include Rublev’s work in a book such as this. Icons were paintings indeed, but they were also much more than paintings. They were visual prayer—paintings for which the artist prepared with fasting and penitence, purifying his heart so that he might be worthy of so divine a task.”
From Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History:
“It is important to grasp, however, that in Orthodox eyes, the icon never has been, and is not to this day, a mere artistic representation of a religious personage or event. It is a physical part of the act of worship, like altar furniture, vestments, banners and sacred vessels. It springs from the Orthodox concept of the doctrine of salvation: ‘God became man in order that man might become God.’ Painting an icon is thus itself a spiritual act. The painter realised the divine within himself and re-created, in a real sense, the image of Christ or the events depicted: the Incarnation, the Nativity, the Visit of the Three Kings. The spiritual state of the artist was, therefore, a key factor in the quality of his work, and iconists were most esteemed when they belonged to the schools of mysticism or devotion. During the later Middle Ages (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries), mysticism, taking various forms, was a powerful force throughout Europe. In both Byzantium and in Orthodox Russia, one of its forms was the mystically enhanced icon, such as those produced in Russia by Andrey Rublyov in the 1420s, where the faces of Christ were as sensitive and reflective as any painted Florence and Siena by his contemporaries.”