Among the great religious films in cinematic history, from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men (2010), the least known to American audiences is probably Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. An ambitious epic of Russia set in the early fifteenth century, it is told in a formally experimental series of episodes, in which the great icon painter sometimes figures in the center of the story but just as often lurks in the background. The film was completed in 1966, but its release (except for a single Moscow screening) was initially blocked by censors. A version was also shown at Cannes in 1969, where it won the FIPRESCI prize. Only in 1971 was it widely released in the Soviet Union, with no advertising whatsoever. Wherever it was shown, though, houses were packed.
Listed often among the one hundred greatest motion pictures of all time, a restored version came to deservedly new attention in the United States last year following a brief run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York (albeit to regrettably sparse audiences). The original version was 205 minutes long, but Tarkovsky also signed off on the 186-minute cut shown in New York.
Shot almost entirely in black and white, Andrei Rublev opens with a prologue (dated 1400, entitled “The Balloon”) in which a dreamer named Yefim manages to get a hot-air balloon aloft. Soaring above the landscape, he cries out “I’m flying!” The whimsical tale, a parable of artistic aspiration and creativity, is followed by a first episode (also dated 1400) in which we meet the eponymous title character and two of his fellow monks, Daniil and Kirill. All three are icon painters, and have just left the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow to paint. Seeking shelter from a driving rainstorm (rain symbolizes human affliction throughout the film), they enter a barn where a jester entertains the local townsfolk. The scene, a unique comic interlude in the film, nevertheless levels a searing criticism of the aristocratic boyars, laying bare their indifference to the peasants’ plight. Things don’t end well for the jester, who receives a beating before being carried off to prison by soldiers of the local prince.
In subsequent episodes Tarkovsky introduces us to Theophanes the Greek, a successful icon painter with whom Rublev has a long, strained artistic relationship (1405-06). Following that is a section depicting Rublev’s resistance to painting a “Last Judgment” scene, intercut with a mysterious reenactment of Christ carrying his cross to Calvary (1408). Next comes a prolonged pagan celebration of Midsummer Night, which draws Rublev into voyeuristic observation of nude love-making (1408).
Part Two begins with the local prince’s encampment with his armed entourage (1408). Soon a band of Tatars arrives. Together, with unspeakable violence, the Tatars and Russians sack the city of Vladimir, violating its citizens and desecrating its cathedral. Rublev, who happened to be painting there, is horrified. (He also kills a man to spare a woman—an “idiot fool”—from rape). “Silence,” the sixth episode (1412), finds Rublev back in the Andronikov Monastery. Famine has struck, and he maintains a vow of silence, undertaken as a penance for killing the would-be rapist. He has brought with him the “idiot fool” Durochka (played by Irma Raush, Tarkovsky’s wife at the time). At the monastery he is reunited with Kirill, who confesses his earlier jealousy of Andrei and urges him to make better use of his God-given pictorial talent.
The key to the whole film is Episode 7 (dated from spring 1423 to spring 1424), which tells the story of “The Bell.” It’s a kind of “film-within-the-film” in which a young man, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), persuades the Grand Prince’s representatives that he has learned the secret of bell-casting from his deceased father (though it’s not actually true). Against all odds, he then oversees a grand—and gripping—project to cast a massive bell that at last rings with clarion clarity.
Tarkovsky’s mastery of the medium of film in “Andrei Rublev” is complete—and completely original. He is extraordinarily adept at close-ups and medium shots of characters, rendering them lastingly real to us—there’s the unforgettable Rublev himself, played by Anatoly Solonitsyn (with profound interiority), or the young bell-caster Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who can display fierce energy or the threat of despair equally with the flash of his young eyes. (These shots also remind us of Ingmar Bergman, who considered Tarkovsky the greatest of all directors.) Tarkovsky became especially famous for his “long takes,” which simultaneously dissolve and (paradoxically) deepen time. Tarkovsky often raises his camera dramatically to the sky in shots that encompass whole landscapes—such as the topography that Yefim sees from his balloon, the city of Vladimir and its people suffering from the savage Tatars and traitorous Russians, or the crowds thronging to see Boriska’s great bell. This is indeed the noble tradition of Russian cinema, in which Tarkovsky proves himself a more than worthy successor to Sergei Eisenstein.