Andrei Rublev: multi-layered film about art, faith and taking creative risks

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Loosely based on the life of the eponymous 15th century Russian icon painter, “Andrei Rublev” examines the relationship of an artist with his faith and what place he can make for himself in a society that doesn’t necessarily value faith or art. The movie consists of seven episodes bookended by a prologue and epilogue related to its themes; the episodes cover the years 1405 to 1425 in Rublev’s life. Each episode involves an event or incident, not necessarily historically accurate, in which Rublev is an observer or participant and shows the political instability, stagnation and spiritual corruption of mediaeval Russian society which made it vulnerable to foreign attacks. Criticism of the Soviet society at the time the film was made is implied. There is a definite linear narrative in which Rublev faces criticism from his fellow monks for wanting fame and renown, nearly succumbs to sensual temptation, has doubts about his skill as a painter, suffers punishment that severely curtails his ability and desire to paint, and finally finds unlikely inspiration to resume painting and renew his faith in God, himself as a person and in his art.

Most of the movie is filmed in black and white with only the epilogue, detailing some of Rublev’s actual works, done in colour: this most likely was done to emphasise that the artist himself is not that important but that his inner spiritual life, his beliefs and his doubts, faith and weaknesses informed his art and artistic journey, and what resulted from that journey is most important. (The black-and-white film is a convenience to first-time non-Russian-speaking viewers as well: it makes following the narrative, themes and dialogue subtitles much easier!) There is a mix of aerial panning shots, tracking shots, long shots and close-ups, all done very smoothly and gracefully, so the movie is as much about Russia itself at a particular time in its history when the country was struggling to throw off Mongol-Tatar rule and Orthodox Christianity was becoming a major force in Russian culture and society, though not without resistance from the common people. This is evident from episodes which include Rublev as an observer and near-participant in pagan fertility rituals, and as an observer of a Tatar raid on the town of Vladimir where he has been at work painting murals in the cathedral which the Tatars pillage and burn. Parts of the film, especially those featuring shots where the camera circles an entire scene where something significant is happening, have a disinterested, almost documentary feel about them that can be reminiscent of work done by German director Werner Herzog. Nature and weather are prominent in many scenes: Rublev and his apprentice Foma walk through a forest discussing Foma’s faults, walking over or along fallen branches; Foma later prods at a dead bird while Rublev converses with a monk; a naked woman swims in a river to escape her captors in an extended shot; Rublev and other characters comment on the singing of nightingales; and there are many shots of horses, some of which are very close to the camera.

As Rublev, actor Anatoly Solonitsyn doesn’t have a lot to do: in many episodes, especially the last episode in which a teenage boy called Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev) oversees the construction of a bell, Rublev is only a minor character who reacts to incidents or is affected by them. Solonitsyn’s acting is very minimal and even his facial expressions give little away; by contrast, other actors such as Buryayev, Ivan Lapikov as Rublev’s fellow monk Kirill, Rolan Bykov as an animated jester and Irma Rausch as mute girl Durochka can be very emotional and their actions expressive in a naturalistic but not melodramatic way. The seven episodes emphasise Rublev’s quest for spiritual and artistic integrity and have the quality of parables. External events, his self-doubt, his weaknesses and the hypocrisies of the society he lives in, not to mention the compromises he is forced to make as a result, all complicate the quest. Even the ideal Rublev ascribes to – love of Russia, love of the Russian people, or agape (spiritual, selfless love as practised by Jesus Christ) – is tested by his encounters and his reactions: in one episode, he saves Durochka from being raped by killing her would-be attacker (a Russian soldier) while Tatars are plundering the cathedral where he and Durochka are sheltering. For this murder, Rublev must do penance by taking care of Durochka, being silent and refraining from painting anything at all. (This scene could also suggest that defending others unable to defend themselves can result in one being deprived of rights and freedoms of expression and speech in a repressive society; many other scenes in “Andrei Rublev” can be interpreted at different levels to mean different things.) In a later episode, Durochka “betrays” Rublev by accepting an offer of marriage from a Tatar soldier and riding off with him. Understandably this causes a crisis of faith for Rublev both personally and at a deeper level and he is unable to function at all as a painter for over ten years.

The supporting cast clearly represent the movie’s themes: Kirill as the monk lacking artistic talent who renounces monastery life and goes into the world, only to return to the monastery years later in spiritual and moral despair, represents an extreme example of what can happen to individuals when they lose faith and the torments they must endure to regain it; Boriska, who blusters his way through making his first bell and admits after making a perfect-sounding bell that he really didn’t know his father’s secret of making bells, represents youth, vitality and creativity buoyed by hope, hard work, belief in oneself or trust in God; and minor characters like Marfa (Nelly Snegina) and the jester represent aspects of a more sensual, natural though pre-Christian Russia which Rublev as a young man finds hard to resist.

Yes, there are scenes of bleakness, of unbelievable cruelty and violence (especially to animals: a horse is filmed falling down and through a wooden staircase, later to be stabbed to death, and a cow is set on fire) and of sheer pig-headed bigotry, all of which help to paint and embellish director Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision of Russia in all its contradictory glory. Tarkovsky’s love for his country and people is obvious but it is love tempered by knowledge of his society’s shortcomings. The film isn’t easy to watch: the pace isn’t slow but it’s fairly leisurely and viewers used to more conventional narratives in which a hero tries to overcome obstacles rather than simply endure them might find Rublev an unsympathetic and distant figure. Repeated viewings are recommended to understand the film’s messages more fully as it’s a many-layered creature. The episodic nature of the film lends itself to viewing in installments for those viewers of little faith as the episodes are fairly self-contained and only a minor incident in episode 7 refers to an earlier episode: in that regard, the important episodes to see are 2 (meetings with Theophanes the Greek) and 5 to 7 which cover the Tatar invasion of Vladimir, Durochka’s running away and the bell-making story.

The best and most emotional moment of “Andrei Rublev” comes near the close of the seventh episode (and the effective end of the movie) when the bell is finished and is made to ring: its resonant sound brings unspeakable joy to its young maker who sobs uncontrollably in Rublev’s arms and admits to the monk that all he had to go on was faith and sheer risk-taking bluff, only to realise he really did have the talent to make a bell. In that moment all the movie’s themes come together and Rublev experiences a rebirth: he is able to speak at last and resume painting. 

Knowledge of Russian history and of the real-life Andrei Rublev, of whom little is actually known, isn’t absolutely necessary to follow the film though viewers may find it helpful to know something of the Mongol-Tatar invasions and how Russian politics was affected: while there was some resistance among the Russian nobility, some princes did co-operate with the invaders and the political disunity perhaps allowed the Mongols to rule the country for as long as they did (over 250 years). While “Andrei Rublev” might not suit most Western audiences who prefer more dynamic narrative forms and active heroic characters, it is a rewarding film about art and the artist’s place in a less-than-ideal society.

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