Andrei Rublev

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #34: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev.

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For a film named after and about a sin­gle man, Rublev is remark­ably absent. Instead Tarkovsky expos­es and lingers on spe­cif­ic events that inter­twine and illu­mi­nate the life of Russia’s most famous icon painter. A chance encounter with a jester, the obser­va­tion and unwit­ting par­tic­i­pa­tion of a pagan rit­u­al, the cast­ing of a bell — all are sig­nif­i­cant moments in the intel­lec­tu­al, spir­i­tu­al and moral devel­op­ment of Rublev; and right along with this, the hand of Tarkovsky adds sim­ple, per­fect, brush­stroke moments to empha­size the les­son that Rublev is about to learn. The wide aspect ratio [2.35:1] does less to stretch the shot arrange­ments and acts more as a focus, main­ly because the long takes and extend­ed pans and tilts Tarkovsky was so fond of make it seem as if the film was mat­ted in post pro­duc­tion. The extrem­i­ties of dis­tance that appear in shot after shot, and the sur­pris­ing intro­duc­tions and rev­e­la­tions this tech­nique allows, often give the film a dis­turbing­ly oneir­ic feel. There are times when the view­er might be watch­ing Rublev’s imag­i­na­tion, but tran­si­tions to and from the actu­al and the flash­back are so smooth as to be nonex­is­tent, and a view­er is left filled with the same sense of doubt that con­sumes the pro­tag­o­nist.

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In a sim­i­lar fash­ion to Rublev’s phys­i­cal absence, we nev­er see him do the paint­ing he is so famous for. Most­ly we are treat­ed to dis­cus­sions on aes­thet­ics that would appear super­fi­cial to any­one who isn’t con­cerned with the effect their art will have on the immor­tal souls of all who view it, or the most spir­i­tu­al­ly accu­rate ways to por­tray a saint or Bib­li­cal anec­dote. The film ends before Rublev makes his way to Trin­i­ty monastery, as an old man, to com­plete his most famous work. The fact that Tarkovsky delib­er­ate­ly ignores the most well-known fact of Rublev’s life in favor of appar­ent­ly tan­gen­tial notes actu­al­ly makes the appre­ci­a­tion of the Rublev oeu­vre more refined. Rublev becomes a man who is tor­tured by the very gift that makes him famous and allows his best effort to glo­ri­fy God. He sins, ter­ri­bly, in his own eyes, and gives up speech and paint­ing for decades as penance. Only when he encoun­ters him­self in a gift­ed young man does he real­ize that his tal­ent and its accom­pa­ny­ing ter­rors belong togeth­er, and that by deny­ing them he denies God. Real­ly, only then, do we see him relax, or real­ize that through­out the film, no mat­ter when we’ve seen Rublev, he has been taut as piano wire.

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Polit­i­cal­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly, the film was imme­di­ate­ly banned in the USSR upon release. This kind of thing always inter­ests me in an aggra­vat­ing way. It is hard for me to under­stand how so much of Russia’s artis­tic pro­duc­tion that was antag­o­nis­tic to the Sovi­et cause got made in the first place, like­ly with state-fund­ing. And how their mak­ers often didn’t get into trou­ble. Andrei Rublev doesn’t seem like a par­tic­u­lar­ly polit­i­cal­ly offen­sive film; although it seems to indi­cate what has held through the cen­turies, Rus­sians peas­ants are dirt-poor and crushed beneath the pet­ty squab­bles of the nobil­i­ty. To jump to the wrong con­ti­nent for a tren­chant phrase: “When two ele­phants are fight­ing, the grass is what suf­fers.” Which is cer­tain­ly true in this film. Whether the vio­lence and bick­er­ing of the Princes, to the Tatar inva­sions, the poor can’t win for los­ing. Tarkovsky works hard to make this vio­lence and its every­day cal­lous expec­ta­tion come through, and it does effec­tive­ly, most­ly through the aus­pices of ani­mal cru­el­ty. In such a world as Rublev lived in, it is not sur­pris­ing he was so con­flict­ed in the exe­ge­sis of his work. This is a fab­u­lous movie.
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