They are always rife with symbolism and thought, though their inherent moral does not always manifest throughout the course of the film. Instead, it’s seen much later and after multiple viewings, with occasional discussion. Essentially, the highly controversial former Soviet director had mastered the art of portraying philosophy on film.
1966 finally saw the completion of one of Tarkovsky’s most controversial epics, “Andrei Rublev,” about the life of a legendary 15th century icon and fresco painter who was later canonized a saint with Russia’s erstwhile chaotic history as its background.
To this day, several different versions of this renowned film exist, since it was almost banned in its home country after its official release and then finally revealed in a censored form for the public in 1971. However, this did not prevent it from winning the FIPRESCI prize at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. It was not until 1999 that this acclaimed-masterpiece was finally given the chance to be viewed as intended when Criterion formally released the director’s cut as part of its prestigious collection.
Aside from the film, the DVD contains rare interviews with Tarkovsky, an audio essay by Harvard professor Vlada Petric, timelines and various technological improvements. However, the true beauty of this DVD rests in the 205 minutes of uninterrupted storytelling.
Following the tumultuous life of the real Andrei Rublev, the epic spans several decades of some of the harshest times in Russia’s history.
As with previous releases, “Andrei Rublev” is bursting with symbolism and philosophy – ranging from meaningful conversation to its liberal use of horses to indicate life, sight and sound – portrayed through candles and church bells – and a plethora of other devices. Tarkovsky was especially fond of generous uses of fire and water.
Even color plays a pivotal role in the film as Tarkovsky believes that “on the screen color imposes itself on you, whereas in real life that only happens at odd moments, so it’s not right for the audience to be constantly aware of color. Isolated details can be in color if that is what corresponds to the state of the character on the screen. In real life the line that separates unawareness of color from the moment when you start to notice it is quite imperceptible,” according to an interview with “To the Screen,” featured on Nostalghia.com. The film was done entirely in black-and-white with the exception of the epilogue, which features several of Rublev’s better-preserved pieces.
It begins simply with a man flying atop a hot air balloon, with angry villagers chasing him as he basks in bliss. Although his euphoric flight cannot last long, he understands the beauty of its innocence. The villagers, however, do not and the erstwhile pilot’s dreams are subsequently crushed in their ignorance.
The following sequences begin to feature the title character in his bildungsroman journey. The entirety of the film is broken into seven chapters, each focusing in a different, chronologically-appropriate event that serves to move the plot along.
Rublev, played marvelously by Tarkovsky-veteran Anatoly Solonitsyn (Stalker, Solaris) in their first collaboration, is an Eastern Orthodox monk with and incredible and widely-acclaimed talent for painting.
He and fellow monks, Danil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), search for work and wander into a barn to seek shelter from the rain. A vulgar, socially-deviant jester begins to poke fun at them before putting on – for the time – a decidedly crude act. Kirill briefly disappears and the jester is taken away by authorities.
Outwardly, a scene like this may almost seem meaningless upon first viewing; however, when taken in context with the rest of the film it becomes a phenomenal exercise in philosophy. Kirill’s ulterior reasons for the removal of the jester are not realized until much later and neither is the hint at his true essence – and what it represents.
A particularly thought-provoking scene follows between Rublev and Theophanes the Greek, an established painter who seeks his help in painting the frescoes of the Cathedral of the Annunciation. Rublev wants desperately to believe in the inherent good in people. Theophanes, however, has grown more cynical with age and experience in the secular world.
In the first two chapters, the pace is already set for a wealth of self-realization and development.
Due to its medieval setting, “Andrei Rublev” is never pretty or pleasant. Its characters and residences are perpetually dirty and almost always miserable. At times, the grimness becomes almost unbearable. One such scene portrays a group of artisans being ambushed and having their eyes put out by the Prince’s men after their completion of his church to ensure the uniqueness of his domain’s creation, evoking the legend of the Taj Mahal, where a similar fate was said to befall its masons.
But even this is symbolic. After all, Tarkovsky was an artistic resident of a tyrannical government and who is the Prince if not an authority figure?
The acting in the spectacle is nothing short of superb. Solonitsyn, who was actually discovered by Tarkovsky, is able to portray a wealth of emotion. His sensitive face evokes a sense of trust and compassion within his viewers for a deeply spiritual man yearning to see good in a dark time.
Lapikov’s portrayal as the cunning and jealous, but ultimately talentless Kirill elicits sympathy for this character, who simply wants to be respected and wanted, though is himself the pinnacle of mediocrity. A particularly striking performance is given by Tarkovsky’s erstwhile wife, Irma Raush, as Durochka, a mentally disabled mute, who some characters often deem “Blessed.” She is introduced when she enters a church in Vladimir, where Rublev and Theophanes are scheduled to paint a fresco of the Last Judgment and begins wailing, forcing the protagonist to reexamine his views on sin.
The cinematography within “Andrei Rublev” is starkly realistic as some of its more gruesome scenes are downright disturbing. Devoid of color, the visuals in Tarkovsky’s first acclaimed piece stir conviction and contemplation, as each looks that much more realistic – more poignant. A particularly dark example is a raid on the town of Vladimir; while a comparatively pleasant one is a youth crying in relief for the success of an uncertain endeavor.
Though hardly the last sensational film directed by the Kurosawa fan, it is considered by many to be his finest work, at times rivaled by “Stalker.”
“Andrei Rublev” may incite rage or revulsion – or even cerebral rapture – but it will certainly lead to delectable contemplation.