Saturday, April 3, 2010

On "Andrei Rublev"

Last night was one of those rare movie marathons in which you watch just one film that merits the “marathon” appellation by virtue of its length and scope. Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” was crafted in 1966 in the middle of the Cold War, so Tarkovsky had to edit his work to meet the demands of the Soviet censors and the patience of a wider international audience; consequently, most moviegoers saw a drastically cut film, but the Criterion Collection has restored the film to its original glory clocking in at 3 hours and 25 minutes. This epic movie offers the viewer a full cinematic experience touching on the entire range of human emotions from wonder to confusion to dread to despair and back again to wonder.

The genius of Tarkovsky is staggering. Unbeknownst to me before watching the film, the original title was “The Passion of Andrei.” This delighted me as I found myself viewing the film on the very day of our Lord’s Passion to which the title was clearly an allusion. I think the original title is a more apt description for the film, as Tarkovsky paints a kind of poetic passion narrative-- in some ways modeled on Christ’s-- of not only the famed fifteenth-century Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev, but of himself, too. By locating the narrative in the 1400s, Tarkovsky has a modest degree of freedom to comment upon both his Russian artistic, cultural, and religious heritage AND his contemporary situation without drawing the ire of the Soviet authorities that might otherwise permanently suppress his work.

Both Rublev and Tarkovsky aspire to create beautiful art through their lives and work that transcends time and contributes to the common good of the Russian people. Both Rublev and Tarkovsky struggle to maintain the faith in the face of intoxicating paganism, violent political tyranny, and dark nights of the soul that nearly consume the barest flicker of faith in their souls. Both Rublev and Tarkovskey wrestle with the temptation to artistic hubris and the difficulty in being understood by their peers. I might also add that any of the descriptions just mentioned are applicable to the life of Christ as depicted in the Gospels, too.

Three sequences in the film really stand out to me. The first is the allegorical prelude at the start of the movie that is never fully explained. The story begins with a character fleeing a mob. He gets into a boat and crosses a lake to a castle where a crew of assistants holds down what looks like a very primitive hot air balloon without any safety platform in which to stand. The desperate man races up the stairs and escapes the unruly crowd just in the nick of time. He then floats over the people and the landscape providing us with a series of strange visions of the earth before crashing. Presumably, the scene is meant to symbolize the life and work of the artist. Some people aid him in his work while others seek to drag him down and block his work. The artist soars above the rest of his fellow men supplying them with glimpses of transcendent beauty before coming back down to the earth at the end of his life. At the time the scene was rather disorienting, but it slowly made more sense as the rest of the film came into perspective. What a fascinating way to begin a movie, though, I must say.

The second sequence features a very bloody, drawn out battle in which the citizens of Vladimir are utterly annihilated by the prince’s ambitious brother who seeks to usurp his brother’s power with the aid of the Tartars. The battle itself features a number of unusual images. For example, a number of commentators bewail Tarkovsky’s abuse of animals, for he films a cow on fire and a horse tumbling upon its back on a stairwell in a very graphic display of physical anguish. These images certainly do resonate in the imagination, but this was 1966, so they didn’t have the special effects that we have today. Perhaps, only the real thing would do for his purposes. At any rate, the image that really struck me is the interior of the church which is wrapped in flames as the iconostasis smokes and burns in a room crowded with corpses. Only Andrei Rublev and a mute woman survive the ordeal. She is unbraiding the hair of a dead woman, which is a rather strange reaction to the grisly world around her. Rublev feels tremendous despair. He just killed a man to save this woman’s life. His people have allied with a foreign invader to wreak havoc upon themselves, and even the churches were not spared the fury of human savagery. Rublev takes a vow of silence and refuses to paint from this point on, for he cannot understand the significance of art in such a barbaric world. This is truly stirring stuff, especially on Good Friday. Mankind truly is a fallen race in need of Christ’s redemption.

The third image comes toward the end of the movie when Rublev witnesses an act of artistic courage that restores his faith in man and God. There is an extended episode in the film about a young bell maker, Boriska, who survives the violent purging of the new prince of the land. His father and all of the other bell builders, however, have either died in the fighting or from a plague. Boriska claims to know the secret of bell building. The prince provides him with money and supplies to construct a new bell. Boriska looks totally disheveled and lost as he tries his darndest to build a working bell. His countenance reveals his paranoia and stark fear of failure, which would inevitably result in his death and those of his fellow craftsmen. The bell is made and hoisted into place. The prince arrives to see if it actually works. Thankfully, it does, and Boriska and his men’s lives are spared. Rublev is watching all of this unfold from a distance. In fact, he is mostly an observer throughout the film, and we never even see him paint anything, quite an irony for a film about an iconographer. The truly stunning moment comes when Boriska wanders off and collapses in tears. Rublev comes to his aid, and the boy admits that he never knew the secret of bell making! On a leap of faith, he had taken a stab at it and had succeeded. Rublev breaks his vow of silence as he embraces Boriska telling him that he will paint icons and Boriska will make bells at the monastery. I nearly cried myself at this scene. Faith and art truly intersect for Rublev, for Tarkovsky, and for the viewer in a sublime image that only a Russian could imagine and incarnate in such a cathartic fashion.

In closing, “Andrei Rublev” is not a film for everyone. It is long. It lumbers along. Hell, I nearly fell asleep several times. It dwells on images longer than necessary at points for poetic effect. It traffics in symbolism that is sometimes unclear. Tarkovsky seems obsessed with water and horses for example. It would take more time and reflection then I have to spare to work through this dense patchwork of symbols. The story does not follow a perfectly linear plot, but is rather a strange assembly of episodes in Rublev’s life, which he may or may not participate in. However, despite all these limitations the movie soars to heights seldom seen in cinema. It is a powerful meditation on art and the artist, the glory of Russian civilization, the temptations and terror of paganism and political oppression, and a genuine and palpable hope in our redemption. For these reasons and many more, I recommend the film for your movie marathon enjoyment or edification or both. Just make sure you set aside a sufficient block of time for the experience and don’t start it at 10:00pm or you’re doomed from the outset. : )

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