Movie Review: Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrei Rublev

Seen: On 35mm at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge.

Medieval art has always been one of my semi-blind spots within art history. Russian art draws an even greater blank in my mind, with little knowledge of art before the twentieth century. With the HFA screening some Tarkovsky this month, it seemed like a fine time to get a bit of art history in with my classic film viewing. Andrei Rublev depicts several (mostly imagined) scenes in the life of the titular artist, a medieval master about whom little is actually known. Played by Anatoliy Solonitsyn, he is a thoughtful, creative monk who struggles with both his artistic subject and his faith. He hopes to spread joy and divine inspiration through his work, but the church enforces terrifying representations of the Last Judgment. He witnesses violent horrors when the city of Vladimir is besieged by a Russian prince and his Tatar army, becoming so traumatized he takes a vow of silence after he is forced to kill a man. His excitement about artistic creation wanes as he witnesses more grief and pain in the human sphere, but eventually the trials of a determined young bell-maker help restore his faith in art, and in himself.

In the medieval era, the convergence of art and religion was almost absolute within European (and, I might guess, Russian) cultures. Almost all artistic practices were done in service of the church, or god himself, and most known fine artists were holy men and women, with others being secular craftspeople. I’ve always thought it was kind of too bad, since there is a lot of really visually interesting medieval art but for me most of the subject matter isn’t appealing. That being said, the importance of faith to the icons, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations created cannot be denied, injecting these works with a kind of intimacy as the makers’ devotion shines through. Though there is not much we actually know about the real Rublev’s life or character, Tarkovsky’s fictional one offers a compelling enough study to pair with the man’s artwork.

Interestingly enough, we rarely actually see any artwork on film. So often the subject of discussion, it is at times in the background, or briefly shown being pondered by some characters. For the most part, however, it is the ideas behind it and its connection to Rublev’s religious beliefs that is given focus. The episodic nature of the film give it a disjointed feel, especially as some are only tangentially (or not at all) related to the title figure, but there are certain threads running through the segments that unite them into a whole: freedom, faith, doubt, loss, creativity, individualism, and both physical and emotional struggle. Made under the Soviet regime, the film was highly controversial for its depiction of Christianity as a central element in early Russian life, but Tarkovsky strove to present a realistic portrait the time period. His approach is pensive, slow-moving, revealing small moments and details within his cinematic world. However, he does not shy away from more violent scenes, incorporating several shows of intense brutality and squalor.

As with other Tarkovsky films I’ve seen, I was most struck by the visual qualities of Andrei Rublev. His use of crisp black and white, meditative takes, sweeping natural vistas, striking materiality, and inventive framing is phenomenal. His camera loves the sullen, craggy, expressive faces of his cast, lingering over particularly distinctive actors like an artist fixating on his model. Also as with his other films, I don’t think I quite “got” it, though I know I was very taken in by it. The more I think about it, the more I think I loved it. I cheered for the man in the opening scene who flies away in his home-made air balloon. I was fascinated by the strange pagan fire rituals Andrei witnesses in the forest. I gasped at the intense scenes of violence when Vladimir was sacked. I rooted for the bell-maker boy, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), in his massive task to create the perfect bell for a new church. I was absorbed by the philosophical arguments and discussions between Andrei and his companions, including the cynical master Theophanes the Greek. I absolutely loved the sudden switch to color at the end, as Rublev’s work is finally shown in wordless close-ups, set against dramatic classical music. For all the talk about art and creation and god’s grace, Tarkovsky ultimately lets the artist’s work speak for itself.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I haven’t seen it yet but this reminded me that I’d like to give Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision a watch, since I did a paper on Hildegard von Bingen last year and she was a very interesting medieval figure. Might be a good pairing, if you can deal with another movie after this super-long one.

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