Andrei Rublev (1969) - Movie Review
In the spirituality of the Eastern Churches, icons are sometimes called "windows into heaven." Even when they depict earthly events, their stylized approach is meant to evoke transcendent realities.
Transcendence in art is both the subject and the method of Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting, challenging Andrei Rublev, which takes the life of a 15th-century monk who was Russia’s greatest iconographer, not as its subject, but as its point of departure. Neither biography nor historiography,Andrei Rublev is a collection of loosely related episodes touching on crises of faith, brutality and chaos, and finally the response of the artist and believer.
With its medieval setting, black and white cinematography, deliberate pacing, and serious, even grim exploration of ultimate issues, Andrei Rublev is like a Russian variation on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with sex and violence. Yet where the unbelieving Bergman’s characters are for the most part isolated any source of meaning or grace and find ultimate answers only in death, Tarkovsky the Orthodox convert allows for community, penance, faith, and redemption.
There are other points of contact and contrast between the two films. Both include depictions of contemporary religious processions; but where Bergman’s off-putting flagellants’ procession dramatizes the irrelevance of historic piety, Tarkovsky’s evocative passion play emphasizes the universality of Christ’s passion and death. Black and white cinematography in both films suggests the starkness of the characters’ crises, but the black and white of Andrei Rublev is finally transcended in a glorious climactic union of form, subject and theme beside which Bergman may be felt to be tragically colorblind.
Surviving works of the historical Rublev epitomize the beatific ideal of Byzantine iconography. Anguish and other emotions are not unknown in Eastern sacred art, but Rublev’s figures are always composed and serene. For Tarkovsky, Rublev’s harmonious art offers the greatest contrast to the upheaval and brutality of his day, as Tarkovsky himself hoped in this and other films to rise above the sociopolitical realities of his own Soviet milieu. (The film’s working title, The Passion According to Andrei, emphasizes the connection between the director and his title character.)
Little is known about Rublev’s life, but Tarkovsky makes Rublev (Anatoli Solonitsyn) more a bystander or a witness than a protagonist in the active sense, and the director’s attention turns variously upon a number of other characters, including a vain, lesser icon painter named Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), an inspired but cynical Greek master named Theophanes, and finally an upstart bellmaker’s son (Nikolai Burlyayev) who claims that he alone possesses his late father’s secret of bellmaking.
Although Rublev is a monk, Tarkovsky takes him out of the monastery, confronting him with the harsh and disturbing realities of the world in which he lives. Rublev’s faith is directly challenged by frontal assaults both dreadful and seductive. In one episode, Rublev is captured by pagan revelers carousing nude in the forest, and is tied cruciform in a hut and probed by an alluring, naked witch, who questions the distinctiveness of his Christian ideal and kisses him sensuously before setting him free. In a later episode, Rublev is caught up in a horrific Tatar raid in which he is forced to kill a soldier to prevent a rape.
His faith and sense of vocation shaken, Rublev is unable to paint, unable to relate to his world, unable eventually even to speak, taking a vow of silence (like the protagonist of the director’s later Offret). What is the point or the place of art in such a world?
The answer comes in a penultimate epiphany that casts the creative act as a leap of faith, an act of absolute self-commitment toward an achievement beyond one’s ability to deliver, and not for one’s own glory, but for the common good. Whatever the artist’s shortcomings or foibles, whatever the obstacles or challenges posed by his world, they are not necessarily an insurmountable barrier unless he succumbs to doubt and paralysis.
What is the answer to the cynicism of Theophanes, the naturalism of the carnal witch, the brutality of the Tatars? It is not an idea; it is nothing that can be expressed in words. It is something that can only be glimpsed, through a glass darkly, or a window into heaven. The notion of art as a "religious experience" is sometimes bandied about too freely. Tarkovsky is one of a handful of filmmakers for whom this ideal was no cheap or desanctified metaphor, but literal truth.
By Steven D. Greydanus