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When Andrei Tarkovsky’s dark, startling Andrei Rublev first materialized on the international scene in the late 1960s, it was an apparent anomaly—a pre-Soviet theater of cruelty charged with resurgent Slavic mysticism. Today, Tarkovsky’s second feature seems to prophesy the impending storm.
Its greatness as moviemaking immediately evident, Andrei Rublev was the most historically audacious production in the twenty-odd years since Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Tarkovsky’s epic—and largely invented—biography of Russia’s greatest icon painter, Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–1430), was a superproduction gone ideologically berserk. Violent, even gory, for a Soviet film, Andrei Rublev is set against the carnage of the Tatar invasions and takes the form of a chronologically discontinuous pageant. The otherworldly hero wanders across a landscape of forlorn splendor—observing suffering peasants, hallucinating the scriptures, working for brutal nobles until, having killed a man in the sack of Vladimir, he takes a vow of silence and gives up painting.
At once humble and cosmic, Tarkovsky called Rublev a “film of the earth.” Shot in widescreen and sharply defined black and white, the movie is supremely tactile—the four elements appearing as mist, mud, guttering candles, and snow. A 360-degree pan around a primitive stable conveys the wonder of existence. Such long, sinuous takes are like expressionist brush strokes; the result is a kind of narrative impasto. From a close-up recording the impact of a horse’s hooves on the surface of a turbid river, Tarkovsky’s camera swivels to reveal a Tatar regiment sweeping across a barren hill. Other times, the camera hovers like an angel over the suffering terrain. The film’s brilliant, never-explained prologue has some medieval Daedalus braving an angry crowd to storm the heavens. Having climbed a church tower, he takes flight in a primitive hot-air balloon—an exhilarating panorama—before crashing to earth.
Tarkovsky began shooting Andrei Rublev in September 1964, two years after his first feature, My Name Is Ivan, won the Golden Lion at Venice and two months before Nikita Khrushchev was deposed. By the time he wrapped in November 1965, the cultural thaw had frozen over. When Rublev was finally completed in August 1966, the ministry demanded deep cuts. The film was too negative, too harsh, too experimental, too frightening, too filled with nudity, and too politically complicated to be released—especially on the eve of the Revolution’s 50th anniversary. After a single screening in Moscow (the Dom Kino supposedly ringed with mounted police), Rublev was shelved. Trimmed by a quarter of an hour, a cut Tarkovsky would later endorse, Andrei Rublev was scheduled for the 1968 Cannes Film Festival only to be yanked by the Soviets at the last minute. (As the ’68 festival would be disrupted and shut down by French militants, this move was not altogether irrational.) The following year, thanks in part to the agitation of the French Communist Party, Rublev was shown at Cannes, albeit out of competition. Although screened at 4 A.M. on the festival’s last day, it was neverthelessawarded the International Critics’ Prize. Soviet authorities were infuriated; Leonid Brezhnev reportedly demanded a private screening and walked out mid-film.
With questionable legality and over strenuous objections by the Soviet Embassy, Andrei Rublev opened in Paris in late ’69. Ultimately, the Soviet cultural bureaucracy relented, releasing the film domestically in 1971. Two years later, Rublev surfaced at the New York Film Festival, cut another 20 minutes by its American distributor, Columbia Pictures. Time compared the movie unfavorably to Dr. Zhivago; those other New York reviewers who took note begged off explication, citing Rublev’s apparent truncation.
What was there to say? The artist Rublev is introduced, along with two brother monks, taking refuge from a storm in a stable where the peasants are being entertained by a bawdy jester. Such buffoons, one monk observes, are made by the devil; the sequence ends with the clown being arrested. In the next sequence, two monks discuss aesthetics while, outside the church, a prisoner is tortured on the rack. (Later, in a fit of jealousy, one of them will leave his monastery, cursing the devotion to art that has corrupted his brothers.) Later, Rublev refuses to terrorize the faithful by painting a Last Judgment. His principles harm his career; the irony, surely not lost on Tarkovsky, was that, a century after the painter’s death, the Orthodox Church accorded his icons absolute authority, a standard “to be followed in all perpetuity.”
The first (and perhaps only) film produced under the Soviets to treat the artist as a world-historic figure and the rival religion of Christianity as an axiom of Russia’s historical identity, Andrei Rublev is set in the chaotic period that saw the beginning of the national resurgence of which Rublev’s paintingswould become the cultural symbol. Indeed, it was precisely the veneration of icons that would distinguish Russian art from that of the West. As the Renaissance gathered momentum, sacred images were transmuted into secular works of art; Russian paintings, however, remained less representations of the world than embodiments of spirit.
On one hand, Rublev is founded on the conflict between austere Christianity and sensual paganism—whether Slavic or Tatar. On the other, it puts the artist in the context of state patronage and repression. (Tarkovsky originally called the movie The Passion According to Andrei.) When Rublev stumblesupon the late spring mysteries of Saint John’s Eve—an alien rite, delicate and strange, with naked peasants carrying torches through the mist—the monk himself is captured and tied to a cross. One wonderful touch: Andrei inadvertently backs into a smoldering fire and has his robes set, momentarily, aflame.
On the other hand, the film projects an entire world—or rather the sense that, as predicted by André Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema,” the world itself is trying to force its way through the screen. Undirectable creatures animate Tarkovsky’s compositions—a cat bounds across a corpse-strewn church, wild geese flutter over a savaged city. The birch woods are alive with water snakes and crawling ants, the forest floor yields a decomposing swan. The soundtrack is filled with bird calls and wordless singing; there’s always a fire’s crackle or a tolling bell in the background.
Andrei Rublev is itself more an icon than a movie about an icon painter. (Perhaps it should be seen as a “moving icon,” in the same sense that the Lumière brothers made “moving pictures.”) This is a portrait of an artist in which no one lifts a brush. The patterns are God’s, a close-up of spilled paint swirling into pond water or the clods of dirt Rublev flings against a whitewashed wall. But no movie has ever attached greater significance to the artist’s role. It’s as though Rublev’s presence justifies creation.
J. Hoberman is film critic for the Village Voice and author of the recently published The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism (Temple University Press).