05 July 2006
100 films: Andrey Rublyov
starring: Anatoli Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Sergeyev, and Nikolai Burlyayev
written by: Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky
directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky
NR, 205 min, 1969, Soviet Union
Gather round, kids, for a three hour Tarkovsky film about the life and times of Russia's greatest iconographer, Andrey Rublyov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), famed painter of the icons in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow, the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Subtitled The Passion of Andrey, Tarkovsky's film uses the historical figure of Rublyov to explore the various conditions of a life in 15th century Russia, from a man hoping to fly in a hot-air balloon, to the creative process of a iconographer, to the machinations of casting a bell for a church steeple.
The Soviet Union, unimpressed with the film's religious themes, refused to allow an official release of Andrey Rublyov. Most of the film's main characters are of a monastic tradition and prone to long diatribes concerning moral virtue and full of passages of Scripture, but it's clear that film isn't endorsing a religious tradition, not does it seem to be condemning it. Rather, Tarkovsky seems interested in presenting his monks with challenges to their faith, to test it by fire. En route to a commission, Rublyov encounters a pagan ceremony celebrating the virtues of love. He chastises them for their immorality, an act which gets him tied up against timbers that form the shape of a cross, and is subsequently seduced by a nude Marfa (N. Snegina) after his preaching proves ineffective. He resists, maintaining his virtue, but the encounter (along with the attack of the pagans by the army the next day) stirs something deep inside Rublyov that forces him to the motives behind his work. He delays the commissioned painting of the Last Judgment by two months while he attempts to reconcile his beliefs with his interaction with the pagans and when he finally does complete the painting, only to see the Tartans attack and burn it to the ground, he kills a man. The entire event is traumatic enough to cause Rublyov to swear off painting.
Later, after the plague has done a good deal of damage to the populace, the Prince sends for a bell maker, but the only one remaining is Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), a mere child who claims his father told him the secret of bell-making on his deathbed. Unlike his father, Boriska rules the workers with an iron fist. Suddenly flush with power, he allows it to go to his head, demanding more silver from the Prince and not permitting any step of the process to move forward without him. He's in over his head and his response is to attempt to control everything, to feel vital to the task at hand as a means for masking his own shortcomings. Rublyov watches all of this with interest, recognizing perhaps the youthful arrogance of his own artistic endeavors.
Being a Tarkovsky film, Andrey Rublyov alternates between scenes where a great deal happens--long, complicated stretches that are littered with meaning, yet obtuse--and scenes where nothing much happens at all. For most western audiences, this requires some amount of adjustment, and even then the film is difficult to understand at best. It's a work best experienced by multiple viewings, but the inherent difficulty in a single viewing makes for a steep learning curve. All that is to say that I'm still not entirely sure what Andrey Rublyov is exactly. The only thing I know with any certainty is that numerous scenes were undeniably brilliant. Beyond that, all I can speak about with any authority is what I took from the experience.
You could easily make the argument that much of Andrey Rublyov is a metaphor for the filmmaking process, but such a statement probably diminishes it, as the film is just too dense and littered with meaning to be simplified so easily. Clearly, Tarkovsky is working in metaphors here, but he's also shining a light on what it meant to be a Russian in the fifteenth century in a world where religion dominated every aspect of society, where a jester could be imprisoned for the smallest infraction but a iconographer could delay for months under various pretenses. Ultimately, though, I think much of Andrey Rublyov boils down to the struggle to create something, to use that God-given talent to the best of your ability, and failing any actual talent, doing what you can to create something lasting. It's interesting to note that Rublyov, who has the most talent of anyone in the film, is the one least concerned with how people perceive him. Boriska wants desperately to be respected, as does Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), one of the other iconographers, but Rublyov seems to care mostly about his artistic process, about painting what he wishes to paint, regardless of what some Prince has commissioned. Is that really just Tarkovsky taking a stab at the Soviet political machine? Probably, but I imagine there's a lot more going on as well. The thing about Tarkovsky is you can never really be sure.
 The film was offensive enough (thanks to the violence and nudity and the horse killed on-screen) outside of Russian borders to ensure that by the time it reached the United States it had lost roughly an hour from the original runtime. Tarkovsky's original cut (or, as close as anyone can get) was secretly preserved under a bed.