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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