In watching “Andrei Rublev” again, trying to find an angle from which to review from was difficult. Here is the pinnacle achievement from one of my favorite filmmakers, one of the greatest films about art ever made, and yet, it doesn’t offer itself up to easy critical assessment…in words anyway. But as someone says early on in the film, “Only with true insight can you grasp its essence.” I guess that’s the mystery inherent with great art.
“Rublev” would be a staggering accomplishment on its’ own even if it weren’t the second feature film of its’ director, the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who chose to follow up his acclaimed and award-winning debut “Ivan’s Childhood” with a 3 1/2 hour epic revolving around the famed Russian icon painter of the 15th Century.
But “Rublev”- both the film and the man- is difficult to pin down to easy characterization. Since not much is known of the real Rublev, Tarkovsky and his co-writer Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky take what is known of Rublev- mostly his professional accomplishments and little backstory- and instead paint a portrait of life in 15th Century Russia, with Rublev (played by Tarkovsky favorite Anatoly Solonitsin) acting as witness to significant moments of great accomplishment and greater tragedy, all the while looking for a way to understand the world through his art and remaining true to his faith. It’s not an easy balancing act for any artist. Throughout, however, we get the sense that Tarkovsky is also commenting on the things he witnessed in the modern day Soviet Union at the time; throughout his all-too-brief career (the last two of his seven films were made in exile in Italy and Sweden, respectively), his principles and his vision of what art should do got him in as much trouble with authority as Rublev had. Case in point, “Rublev” was so reviled by the Soviet authorities it didn’t receive a proper release until five years (and several cuts) later. Like Rublev, Tarkovsky had the last laugh in the end, as his films (like Rublev’s icons- some of which can be seen at the end of the film) and his career became symbolic of Russian art in the years to come.
I know his films spoke loud and clear to me when I first discovered them. Starting with his 1979 film “Stalker”, Tarkovsky’s work struck a chord with me as an artist and an individual. In watching his films, reading appreciations, and discovering his own perspectives of life and art (from his book “Sculpting in Time” and interviews with him on Criterion’s DVD of “Rublev” and the documentary “Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky”), something about his films and himself has resonated powerfully with me over the years, even inspiring me in my own artistic pursuits; I wrote a piece in 2002 called “Lost Souls, Guided by Hope” for trombone quartet and electronics inspired by “Stalker,” and this past year (2008) his artistic vision was the driving force behind my work of putting mine and other people’s music to conceptual visual ideas (which can be seen on my YouTube page).
More than anything, that inspiration artists find in their own is, in fact, the most significant thing I tend to take away from “Rublev.” This is especially true of its’ final third, when Rublev witnesses the casting of a bell in a small village. By this point, Rublev- having killed a man during the Tatar raid on the town of Vladimir- has taken a vow of silence and promised God never to paint again in atonement. He eventually finds himself back at the Andronikov Monastery- where he worked until summoned by Theophanes the Greek to work on the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow- with a holy fool at his side, to remind him of his sin. A former rival Kirill also returns at this point- having suffered much in the secular world since he renounced his brothers at the Monastery in a fit of jealousy. But even kind words renouncing what he said back then isn’t enough to get Rublev to speak or create again. All the while, the peasants of a nearby village, led by the young Boriska (“Ivan’s Childhood’s” Nikolai Burlyaev), have been contracted by the Grand Prince to make a bell for the nearby cathedral. The Prince originally searches out his father, but Boriska convinces them of his abilities at bell-making now that his father’s dead, saying that he passed the secret of bell-making to him on his deathbed.
Immediately, as Boriska takes charge of the commission through his boldness and audacity, we sense that there’s something Boriska and Tarkovsky are not telling us. He seems to be leading them on a wild goose chase, using his conviction to swindle the Prince out of unnecessary funds and leading the bell-casters of the village to go to unnecessary lengths to make the grandest bell possible. As he watches, Rublev senses it too, and senses Boriska’s surprise at how well things are going. On the big day, suspense is high as to whether the bell will ring. When it does, it’s impossible to not feel the same joy and excitement the townspeople do with the accomplishment. So why is Boriska, this gung ho personality whose convictions drove this magnificent creation into being, crying after it tolls? The answer is an inspiration to Rublev, who consols the boy, and pledges that they both will go and do what they are meant to do.
This is the fundamental nature of faith and inspiration distilled to its’ essence. Like Rublev, Tarkovsky understands that only through great risk can artists lead others to great achievements. Whether we know all of the secrets of our trade is inconsequential at the end- what matters is the faith we have in our vision. This is why Rublev is unable to complete his commission of The Last Judgement early in the film- what the project asks of him cannot be reconciled with his artistic conventions in his soul- and this is what Tarkovsky’s film is ultimately about, not only the artist’s responsibility to the world around him but- in a much more profound way- his responsibility to his own artistic direction. This is why Theophanes the Greek chooses Rublev to invite to paint the Cathedral instead of Kirill, who is the one who approaches Theophanes. Kirill’s motivations for working with Theophanes are not for the betterment of art and the world it will reflect but for personal gains and public humiliation of his rival.
If the artist and his responsibilities to his art and the world are at the heart of “Rublev,” Tarkovsky has made sin- especially the sin of pride- equally important to his film’s narrative. In taking notes during the film (a rarity for me when reviewing a film, such as the complexity at work in this film), one of the things that struck me about the film is how the Seven Deadly Sins- and a few in particular- play a role in the film’s fascinating narrative.
A couple of the film’s major chapters stand out. Obviously, we see how pride and envy of Rublev leads to Kirill’s downfall in the Monastery and his inability to succeed in the secular world, but other key sequences resonate with the burden of sin and the consequences of giving into sin. Take the opening sequence, seemingly unrelated to the narrative of the rest of the film, where a man from a village climbs to the top of a church, and launches a medieval balloon into the heavens before crashing down to Earth after a brief flight. But in reality, this sequence is a parallel to the closing one with the bell casting, except where that act of hubris succeeded brilliantly, rewarding the risks taken, this early attempt at flight- when the world is not ready for it- brings a world down to Earth at the limitations of human endeavor.
Later on in the film, Rublev finds himself in the middle of Saint John’s Eve, a pagan ritual where participants get themselves naked to perform illicit acts of love with one another. For the monk Rublev, such carrying on is an example of pure lust, but in one moment, he’s sufficiently intrigued to gaze curiously on a couple in the throws of passion. For this slight against his own morality, Rublev inadvertently walks into a nearby fire, setting his robe ablaze, while he is later captured by the participants, who will not stand for this man of God’s self-righteous lectures.
But Tarkovsky’s ultimate triumph in “Andrei Rublev” lies not with its’ delineation of moral certainties, but the lasting conundrum of art and its’ place in society and how, in the end, even something as simple as a bell’s toll can inspire the greatest sense of joy in the human spirit. Regardless of his film’s unflinching realism and sometimes tragic human drama, it’s that unwavering sense of hope can survive even the most dire of circumstances.
**The following is an essay I wrote about “Rublev” for my Language of Film & TV course at Berklee Online last year.**
For my final assignment, I have decided to look at “Andrei Rublev,” a 1966 film co-written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. This film is an ideal selection for a discussion on creating meaning through the language of film because throughout his 7-feature career, Tarkovsky deliberately used sound, cinematography, and editing in ways that challenged our ideas of cinematic language, and what it was capable of. His film about the famous Russian icon painter, however, is his most audacious work, not the least because he challenges traditional narrative, and the long-standing theories of montage first put forth by his countryman Eisenstein four decades before this film, for the sake of a deeper spiritual meaning. In the following paragraphs, I hope to show how Tarkovsky utilized editing and narrative structure in particular to tell an unconventional “true story” with more on it’s mind than just the life of it’s subject.
Before I continue properly with my analysis, I’d like to quote no less than Ingmar Bergman, who said the following about Tarkovsky: “Suddenly I found myself standing at the door of a room, the keys to which, until now, had never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated; someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”
Bergman’s words came after he saw Tarkovsky’s first film, “Ivan’s Childhood,” and they are just as applicable when discussing “Rublev,” which was his second feature. Though Rublev was a real person, and one of the most famous painters of religious icons in Russia, Tarkovsky and his co-writer, Andrei Mikhalkov Konchalovsky, eschewed the traditional narrative trappings of the cinematic “biopic” to tell a story about Russia in the 15th Century that commented on the conditions of the then-Soviet Union during the mid-20th Century under communism. (Part of this approach might be because biographical details about Rublev are not as fully available as they are about others.) The 3 1/2 hour film is broken up into seven main sections and a prologue, and while there are times when one section flows naturally into another, they are largely independent episodes, what one might even call vignettes. Sometimes, Rublev is a central character in the drama, while in others, he is a spectator to larger events happening on screen. This isn’t the same as Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace intercutting between the exploits of William Wallace, King Edward the Longshanks, and the Scottish nobles in “Braveheart,” for example, because “Braveheart” ultimately told a straightforward story, although, as with Rublev, full details of Wallace’s life were scant, at the time. In “Rublev,” although there is a loose three-act structure to the evolution of Rublev’s character, it is seen through a disjointed personal narrative. Rublev’s time working with Theophanes the Greek near the beginning of the film does not lead to his being caught looking at events of Saint John’s Eve, which does not lead him to the village where he is caught in the middle of a Tartar raid in 1408, which does not lead him to the village at which a young man is leading the casting of a bell for the Grand Prince. All of these events happen during the film, but there is not always a straight line path from one to the other as we are used to in cinematic biopics. Emotionally, though, each episode builds upon the one before us to give a full portrait of the character of Rublev as a spiritual man whose love of God and the divine inspired great works of art, and was unconditional. We never see Rublev paint during the film, but when Tarkovsky shows us images of Rublev’s work after the story of the film is over, we feel like we have an understanding of the creative mind who painted them.
One part of “Rublev’s” narrative has always confounded viewers, and it is the prologue. In it, we see a man climbing up a church tower, getting away from an angry mob of people, and flying in an early hot air balloon. He does not last long in the air, as he crashes to earth in a remarkably shot sequence, which I will discuss further later. Even more so than the other episodes of “Rublev,” this sequence has no narrative connection to the story of Rublev as a character, because it does not include any characters we will see later. So what is the point of the sequence? I feel like it is intended as a prelude to the final sequence of the film, mentioned previously, in which a young man claims to know the secrets of bell casting, and leads the people of a village in the casting of a bell for the Grand Prince of the land. Cocksure, the prince’s men have no reason to doubt him, although we can feel, by the look on his face, he is less certain of himself than he lets on. When the bell rings, he seems almost as surprised as everyone else is relieved. Later, after the success, Rublev (who has taken a vow of silence, and never to paint again, after killing a man during the Tartar invasion) finds the young man alone, crying. He consoles the boy, who admits to the painter that, in fact, he did not know the secret of bell casting. Though they have very different outcomes, the man riding the balloon at the beginning, and the boy leading the bell casting at the end, are possessed by a faith (some might say arrogance) that transcends reason, and lead to extraordinary results. The boy’s accomplishment inspires Rublev to continue painting, leading into the montage of Rublev’s work at the end. This emotional epiphany is what the film has led to, giving meaning to the beginning of the film by showing, at the end, what happens when ambition pays off.
In each of his seven feature films, Tarkovsky favored long tracking and panning shots over brisk edits. Tarkovsky’s approach to film editing was the polar opposite of Eisenstein and other Russian filmmakers, who used quick cuts to create intense emotional reactions through a fast-paced montage of juxtaposed shots. Tarkovsky wanted to create an intense emotional reaction, as well, but did so by allowing sequences to play out almost in real time, giving us time to ponder what we’re seeing, and understand how we’re feeling. Take a moment in “Rublev,” during the Tartar invasion, when we see a man tortured in the village church. We follow the man, who is tied up, as he is forced upright. He has not said anything, and he questions why he, a humble peasant believer, must go through this. Because it is an unbroken shot, we see what the man is experiencing without the benefit of being able to look away. Tarkovsky is forcing us to agonize with this man, thus making our feelings toward him stronger, even though this is the only time we will see him in the film. If he had cut between different actions and shots, the effect would have been dampened.
Tarkovsky had some insightful things to say about the art of editing in his book, Sculpting in Time, that illuminate why less is more when it comes to editing in his films. On the concept of montage, he says, “The idea of ‘montage cinema’- that editing brings together two concepts and thus engenders a new, third one- again seems to me to be incompatible with the nature of cinema. Art can never have the interplay of concepts as its ultimate goal. The image is tied to the concrete and the material, yet reaches out along mysterious paths to regions beyond the spirit.” Later, Tarkovsky writes, “Although the assembly of the shots is responsible for the structure of a film, it does not, as is generally assumed, create its rhythm. The distinctive time running through the shots makes the rhythm of the picture, and rhythm is determined not by length of the edited pieces, but by the pressure of the time that runs through them. Editing cannot determine rhythm (in this respect it can only be a feature of style); indeed, time courses through the picture despite editing rather than because of it. The course of time, recorded in the frame, is what the director has to catch in the pieces laid out on the editing table.” Certainly, this is a very different philosophy than what we are used to thinking about when it comes to film editing, where the “rhythm” of the film is typically considered the same as length of time between cuts from one shot to another. This philosophy is at play throughout “Rublev,” especially during scenes as when Rublev is talking to the long-dead Theophanes the Greek after the Tartar raid where he has killed a man. In content, the scene is about two spiritual men, one who has discovered how little he understands about life, the other who has learned more in death than he ever did in life. The dialogue creates the rhythm of the scene, as the shots move between Rublev and Theophanes without feeling the need to focus on the individual doing the talking. The editing in this scene isn’t dictated by traditional notions of scene construction, but simply by Tarkovsky’s own ideas of what the next shot should be for the greatest emotional effect, and visual interest, like when a cat is running around the church when we first see Rublev in the church after the massacre.
Tarkovsky’s most striking notions of film editing, though, lie not in his rejection of “montage cinema,” but in finding “poetic reasoning” in telling a story through cinema. The son of a poet, Tarkovsky strives many times in his films to finding “the logic of poetry” in cinema, and when he found it, it was very pleasing to him. As he writes in Sculpting in Time, poetic links “seem to me perfectly appropriate to the potential of cinema as the most truthful and poetic of art forms. Certainly I am more at home with them than with traditional theatrical writing which links images through the linear, rigidly logical development of the plot.” In “Rublev,” an example of this occurs when Rublev and Theophanes are having an aesthetic debate that turns into a theological discussion. This leads to an extended vision of the crucifixion as the discussion continues, and concludes when the dialogue ends. The next shot we see is the squire who is Rublev’s pupil wiping paint off of brushes in the water. On the surface, this seems like a literal link more than a poetic one, but imagine if the dialogue had continued as it does, and rather than cutting to Tarkovsky’s staging of the crucifixion (which is striking not just in execution, but in how the fact that it was shot in a snow-covered Russia adds a sense of freshness to events we’re used to seeing portrayed in a specific way), he kept his camera, and cuts, on Rublev and Theophanes. The scene might have still worked, but there’s an additional beauty, and indeed, poetry to the scene because we have that visual to connect with what the characters are saying. It is fascinating to watch Tarkovsky find further emotional meaning in his films by creating interesting aesthetic moments through unconventional editing choices.
Narrative structure and film editing are just two of the ways “Andrei Rublev” creates meaning through cinematic language. More paragraphs could be devoted to the film’s cinematography and sound design, which are essential to the artistic vision of Andrei Tarkovsky. In the cases of editing and narrative, however, Tarkovsky abandons classical notions of cinematic storytelling the furthest to give “Andrei Rublev” an emotional core that is profound and unforgettable, and has inspired me in my own creative endeavors since I first saw it.