Not much is known about Andrei Rublev, the 15th century Russian monk – who was also a painter. Only one of his works has been actually authenticated (the Trinity, seen above) – but he has taken on mythical status in Russia, certainly, and in art circles.
I first became aware of his work because of Hopeful Monsters – one of my favorite novels (excerpt here). The works of Andrei Rublev take on gigantic significance in the book – especially during the early 1930s section of the book – when Stalin’s terror is escalating, the famine in Ukraine is raging (but not being admitted) – and Max, one of the main characters, goes to study in Russia for a semester. He wanted to see for himself what was happening in Russia. Many things happen to Max, but one of his missions ends up being – trying to track down the Andrei Rublev Museum in Moscow, which is easier said than done. The state in Russia at that time did not want to deal with Andrei Rublev: Rublev brought up a memory of the Russians as an intensely faith-filled people – and the Russian Revolution, started in 1917, but really picking up steam in the 30s, was interested in bashing God out of existence. Max has many coincidental moments, in Moscow, trying to find this museum, and much of it begins to add up into his head … He begins to feel that the key to Russia is held by Andrei Rublev.
Tarkovsky’s film, usually called a “masterpiece”, was filmed in the 1960s. It is over 3 hours long, but when it was first released in the United States, an hour or more had been cut, so many of the original reviews seem baffled as to what they should actually be reveiwing. They felt that they needed to see the whole thing in order to judge. The Russians weren’t too pleased with Andrei Rublev, either … If you look at it through the eyes of the Politburo (and why on earth would you want to do that?? But just for perspective’s sake …) you can see the issues therein. Churches had been closed and turned into pool halls and “museums of atheism”. There was a concerted effort to get rid of religion. Andrei Rublev was a monk, living in a time of great strife and internal warfare in the great land of Russia. Tatars were invading. Rival princes were struggling for power. Many of them cooperated with the Tatars. The monks, in their monasteries, painting manuscripts and icons, lived separate from the mayhem, in some ways isolated … yet the proof of the surrounding war is in the fact that so little artwork from that time remains. And what does is often burnt – because churches were torched, and very little survived.
Rublev himself is a great unknown. The facts are sparse. Tarkovsky fills in the blanks.
The film is a massive accomplishment, with, frankly, some of the most beautiful startling footage I have ever seen in a film. Yes: ever. It is hard to even describe some of it, because it is so bizarre, so once-in-a-lifetime, at times unsettling. A man floating above the landscape, tangled up in the ropes of some makeshift airborne apparatus …
The man flies over the landscape, and we never see him from the ground – we only see the entire thing from his perspective, which makes it dizzying and rather sickening – going faster and faster over herds of reindeer, lakes, trees, guys in boats, until he crashes into the grass. (All one shot – from the guy’s perspective – how they did it I’ll never know).
There are unexplained shots of beauty that approach lyric poetry: a black horse lying on the grass, rolling on its back, this way, that, its thin legs up in the air.
The film slowed down slightly right then … to accentuate the mysterious nature of the moment.
We are not meant to know what a moment like that “means”. It is what it is.
Indelible images overflow the film, at times threatening to derail any sense of forward motion: a bell being hoisted up the belltower of a cathedral – with ropes and workers stretching off to the horizon – yes, to the horizon … a riderless horse galloping through an empty ruined cathedral … a group of naked pagan women standing in a river, holding torches …
At times the film feels and looks like a documentary (a Russian film-making tradition and style, Soviet realism):
Some of those look like they could be by Walker Evans. The closeups, the grit of the faces, the almost blatant lack of artifice (which becomes a comment in and of itself) and the treatment of the individuals has much in common with that 1930s-style realism.
…and then there are flights of lyrical sentimentality (too many, in my opinion) – with the camera lingering over flowers and raindrops and snowflakes. It’s over 3 hours long. You have time to settle in. It’s not just one movie, or one style. It is many.
I am not sure if I consider it to be a “masterpiece”. I think the thing that is lacking for me is the sense of Andrei Rublev as a real man. He is “Artist (TM)”. He is a symbol, an idea, rather than an actual person. Now this is also a Soviet trait of storytelling (not Russian, but Soviet – which I think adds to a lot of the beautiful tension in the film – the two styles battling with each other): archetypes and symbols taking precedent over actual humanity. This may be WHY others call it a masterpiece, but for me … it lacked in that area. It is too long. The “sentimentality” of some of the images were quite lovely, but they were too repetitive. (Sentimentality is different than sentiment. Sentimentality lingers, wanting us to notice it, comment on it, be struck dumb by it. It demands that we be moved in order to validate its existence. Sentiment exists whether we want it to or not. Example: The pulling-back of the camera to show the dead man’s arm is a moment of reality, a vision of horror – and the camera pulls back, and we see a dropped satchel of paint slowly bleeding into the river – the light color dyeing the darker water of the river – and it is a lovely image, a piece of poetry, but when a film has several such sequences, 20 maybe, it begins to lose its power. It becomes apparent that this is the director’s style, moving with his camera from the specific to the abstract – and again, maybe that works for some people. For me, I can recognize its beauty, but it leaves me cold. It remains intellectual.)
My response to the epic, in some ways, reminded me of my response to Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (my thoughts here). The world went gaga over Taste of Cherry, and it left me cold. There are many beautiful sequences, and I loved the color palette used, and the visuals. But the character seemed like a cipher, and I couldn’t invest in his journey. I didn’t see what others saw.
Andrei Rublev (in the movie, anyway) is a monk, living a rustic simple life on a monastery when he is called by the Grand Prince to come to Moscow and help Theosophanes the Greek help finish painting the cathedral. Rublev’s reputation already exists at that time – he is known for his icons, his religious paintings. So off he goes on his journey. The world he travels through, to get to his destination, is almost like the Judgment Day paintings on the walls of the great medieval cathedrals. A world of brutality and faith, with vicious cruelty, peasants huddled in the dark, fearful, and grand men with big boots stomping all over them. Rublev watches pagans being tortured, there are episodes with the Tatars – grinning ferocious men on magnificent horses – who come to villages, only to torch the entire place. We see women lying on the ground, surrounded by Tatar men, being raped repeatedly. Men are thrown off roofs. Innocent boys are pierced by arrows. A horse falls down a flight of stairs, stuck by a sword. Rublev, with visions of angels in his head, is horrified. He is a deeply interior kind of man (played beautifully by Anatoli Solonitsyn – he bears an incredible resemblance to Viggo Mortenson), not a fire-breathing religious fanatic, nor a hypocrite, like Theosophanes is portrayed to be (a man of NO faith, who is in charge of painting the cathedral).
Rublev is tormented by what he sees … and at the same time, when it comes time for him to paint the Judgment Day on the cathedral wall, he cannot do it. He cannot force himself to paint the horrors of hell, and his creativity dries up. What is he to do?
Whatever it is that is inside Andrei Rublev – in terms of his feelings about sin, and forgiveness, and Christ, and God – are left opaque in the film. We see him kill a man. He kills him because that man is dragging off an idiot girl to rape her (idiot in the Dostoevsky sense – not a “she is a stupid person” sense) – and, by the way, it is a spectacular performance, with no dialogue, played by Irma Raush. Rublev has already seen something in her, something divine, the holy idiot, and he chases the man up the stairs of the cathedral – and we then see the man come tumbling down the stairs covered in blood. Is this a justified killing? Some of Rublev’s colleagues seem to think it is. The guy had it coming. But Rublev descends into the silence of guilt, unable to deal with the implications of what he has done.
The film ends with one of the most extraordinary sequences I have ever seen put to film. A young boy, whose father was a bell-maker, and who died passing on his secrets to his son on his death bed – is charged with building a huge bell for a cathedral.
The land has been ravaged by Tatars, who barge into their churches, torch them, kill everyone hiding there. So the bell has deep religious and cultural significance. But that is not the focus of the last sequence. That is what I read into it, as a viewer. What the focus is is the making of the bell, and how it was done. Building a pit. Searching, endlessly, for “the clay” … the mother-lode of clay that is just right for what they need … work stops … then starts … what if he can’t find the clay? He is about 14, 15 years old and is the foreman of the project – the workers are all much older than he is, and he has a lot to prove. The firing up of the kilns – another scene that takes on a hellish aspect, men with huge fire-red (well, it’s a black and white film, but you know they are red) pokers, and ovens filled with glowing molten material, like the hellfires of Judgment Day Rublev had so much trouble painting:
hundreds of people at work, building the chutes where the molten material will flow, when ready … the cast having been made of the giant bell …
The bell-making sequence has to be seen to be believed.
Rublev is an old man at this point. He has descended into almost complete silence, and seems to haunt the young bell-maker. He glances up out of the pit, and sees Rublev standing there. Rublev is not working on the project, but it seems that what Tarkovsky is saying is that Rublev has become a patron saint of artists and artisans in Russia. His presence is there, on the outskirts of any big artistic undertaking. This is not told in an overt way. To be honest, the first time I saw it I was not aware what Rublev had to do with the bell at all. Was this the cathedral that we saw burnt earlier? Rublev is much older now. Have the villagers decided to build it up again? So this is seen as a triumph of religious faith? The Tatars and the rival princes could burn up their churches again and again … but the people would continue to rebuild?
Rublev and the boy end up having a crucial (wordless) scene in a puddly deserted field, which speaks much to what is actually going on, in terms of catharsis, artistic commitment, and inspiration. Rublev, a quiet troubled man, is present for this young boy, in a way that has been building in him in the entire film. He is flawed. We are all flawed. Rublev strives for perfection and in that moment (it’s just a moment!) – he achieves it. It is a truly holy moment between the two. Perhaps Rublev is actually dead, and he is appearing to the bell-maker as a guardian angel. There are other examples of this in the film which is not, to put it mildly, literal. Death is not an end. The dead haunt us still. Sometimes they help us. That might be the message being conveyed, but I’m not sure. It’s okay that I’m not sure. I actually prefer not being sure, in a film of this kind. Leave the easy answers to other people. I think a film of this kind works in its vagueness, rather than in its specificity. But this is why Rublev had been created with more mood than detail. At the end of the film, there’s a moment where he grabs a girl’s mouth – she has been shoving it full of wild mushrooms – and makes her spit out the food. She is crying. He is violent. His behavior here, 3 hours into the film, remains incomprehensible to me. I still didn’t feel that I knew him at all. This is not necessariy a bad thing. I was left with many questions after seeing it, and I pondered that mushroom moment (for example), turning it over in my mind, coming up with guesses as to what was going on. “People are starving in the countryside … who are you to hog all the mushrooms to yourself …” “We have taken vows … to show such gluttony is not what we are about …” Or: “I love you. I am a monk and I have feelings for you I cannot control. To see you at all in this human moment is too much for me, so I must punish you.” It could be any one of those things.
But in the last sequence the project itself of making the bell takes centerstage over any symbolic or religious or, dare I say, existential considerations. We are now in the territory of a gritty “How To” manual, and I could not look away. I did not know anything about bell-making and bell-raising. I hadn’t even thought about it. But you can bet I went online and Googled the SHIT out of “medieval bell-making” after seeing the film. It’s fascinating, and exquisitely done. Tarkovsky makes me understand. I am involved in the process, and although I am ignorant about it … he films it in such a clear open way that I totally “get” what is going on. When the camera pulls up, up, up, and back, back, back, showing the long thick ropes sweeping up over the landscape, up hillsides, down – with people all along them, people tiny as specks in our perspective – ready to “pull” when the command comes – It just takes your breath away. It’s a sequence I will never forget.
David Thomson’s article about Tarkovsky in his Biographical Dictionary of Film is well worth checking out. An excerpt:
The Sacrifice is a parable about nuclear holocaust being averted by some great personal sacrifice. It has some of the most glorious extended shots in film history. The mise-en-scene is relentless. The perfection has something monstrous about it, as if trouble had made Tarkovsky into a magnificent island gradually receding from the rest of the world. For this viewer, there is something tyrannical about it that spurs irreverent thoughts of resistance.
Much food for thought there, and I still have much to think on in terms of Andrei Rublev.
It works on a grand level – with spectacular swooping crane shots, starting at almost ground level and then climbing into the air until you can see the horizon – and it works on a small level, too – with the intimate moments between characters, and people who do come alive (not Rublev, but others). For example, there’s a character of a jester, a ‘fool’, who wanders the villages, telling jokes, playing guitar, and occasionally dropping trou – to uproarious laughter from the crowd.
Something happens to him early on, a moment of violence out of nowhere, that was so upsetting to me I caught my breath. In 5 minutes of screen time I had already fell in love with the guy. I hadn’t even realized it had happened until I gasped at the sight of him being hurt.
Filmed in CinemaScope – Andrei Rublev is MADE to be seen on a huge screen. All of the shots are long, thin, and chock-full of action and figures – like a mural in a cathedral. There are some shots where we have someone in the foreground, almost in closeup, and way in the background, we see tiny figures struggling up a snowy hill, or riding their horses by in single file – and it is structurally disorienting. We can’t tell if the person in closeup is standing on a cliff, or how it is that those people in the background are also in the shot.
In a funny way, it looks as though those sequences were filmed during Andrei Rublev’s time, before the “invention” of the vanishing point in art, and before three-dimensional reality was recreated on a canvas. Objects all seem to be placed on the same plane in Andrei Rublev, in the same way they appear on medieval tapestries and triptychs, the closeup face and the tiny specks in the distance seeming to live in a flat and two-dimensional space, identical … It’s a spriritual atmosphere, one of disorientation … where humanity can start to look the way God must see it: tiny specks struggling up a snowy hill. Both kinds of vision: closeup and telescopic – happen at the same time constantly in Andrei Rublev, and in the same moment.
In Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley, Max the narrator writes:
One of the sights I wanted to see in Moscow were pictures by the painter Andrei Rublev. Andrei Rublev had lived around AD 1400 at a time of much savagery and destruction in Russia. The legend about him was that he had been trained by a painter but then had become so numbed by the horrors he saw that he had been unable to paint; then sometime later he became a monk and painted pictures of serene, adoring angels … I began to have an obsession about getting to see these paintings by Andrei Rublev: I felt I had to see them to confirm something I was on the edge of understanding about Russia.
Max, through much subterfuge (nobody seems to want to point him the way to the museum), arrives at the monastery where the paintings are supposedly held. It is deserted. It is not a time in Russia (1933) when you wanted to be seen mooning over paintings of serene angels. Max wanders through the halls, feeling like he is going to be arrested at any moment. In the strangest moment of all, he walks into one gallery and sees two men talking. Stunned, he realizes he recognizes one of the men as his classmate from Cambridge – who is not supposed to be in Russia at all. Max then realizes, thunderstruck, that it had been Mullen (the friend) who had told him to seek out the paintings of Andrei Rublev. Max doesn’t know whether to be frightened or pleased. He does know that “coincidence” is rarely such … and that all of this has something to do with Andrei Rublev. He approaches Mullen. Mullen wraps up his conversation with the other fellow and turns to Max.
Mullen said, ‘You’ve found me.’
I thought – Well, yes, I see what you mean, I’ve found you.
Mullen put his hand on my arm. He said ‘How are you?’ He looked round. He said, ‘How did you get here?’ Then ‘We can talk here.’
I said ‘ I was trying to get to see paintings by Andrei Rublev.’
He said ‘You were trying to get to see paintings by Andrei Rublev?’
I said ‘Yes.’
He said ‘Here there’s a painting by Andrei Rublev.’
I said ‘I thought I recognised you at the top of the stairs.’
He said ‘I see.’
Mullen was a tall, gaunt figure who might have been some sort of monk. He might have gone wandering across Russia seeing horrors; might he from these have imagined pictures of serene, adoring angels?
I said ‘I thought the paintings were in a monastery, but the taxi brought me here.’
Mullen said, ‘No one told you I was here?’
I said ‘No.’
Mullen said ‘But it was I who told you about Andrei Rublev!’
I said ‘Yes.’
Mullen smiled. He said ‘What a coincidence!’
I thought – He may know the code! But what is the message?
Mullen turned away towards a painting that was on the wall behind him. He murmured, ‘I thought you were somewhere in the Ukraine.’
I said ‘I was.’ Then – ‘I wondered about Kapitsa.’
Mullen said ‘You wondered about Kapitsa.’
I said ‘Yes.’ Then I became aware of the painting on the wall behind Mullen.
Do you know this painting by Andrei Rublev? It is called The Old Testament Trinity. It was one of the paintings of which I had seen a reproduction before I left England. It is of the three angels that came to tell Abraham and Sarah that, even though they were about a hundred years old, they would have a child. The three angels are said to be God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. They are all three much the same; they are neither male nor female; they are all young and beautiful. They sit round table, on which there is a bowl; and behind them is a tree, and what seems to be the entrance to a courtyard. The three angels, though separate, seem to be held together by a common inner absorption – by the fact that this seems to give them control over the spaces between. I thought – They are serene, but they are not exactly adoring: they know too much to be adoring: what they are in contact with is themselves.
Tarkovsky’s use of long long shots, with deep closeups in the foreground, makes the film feel like The Old Testament Trinity. Perhaps it was a deliberate filmmaking decision: to set up Rublev as a character who was like one of those angels he would later paint – consumed by “inner absorption” – and it is that absorption that gives him ” control over the spaces between”. Tarkovsky shows us “the spaces between”. They are vast, endless, and overpowering at times. How could anyone come along and unite those spaces together?
A flawed work, but a great piece of 20th century filmmaking nonetheless.
I would love to hear the thoughts of others who have seen this extraordinary, difficult and (to me) frustrating film. I have read many of the reviews hailing it as a masterpiece, and I can honestly see all of their points. In the same way that I read the reviews of Taste of Cherry, and yes, I felt we all had seen the same film, but it just did not resonate for me the way it did for others. I don’t feel, in the case of Andrei Rublev, that this is a matter of “the emperor’s wearing no clothes” – the way I feel about, say, Forrest Gump – a film I find to be truly vile. My tepid response to Rublev very well could be my own failing. I’m still working it out. (It is also highly possible, given the look and structure of the film, that seeing it on a big screen would be a totally different experience. Like night and day different. I have only seen it on a small screen, and perhaps the images – although beautiful and arresting – would add up to seem to be something more on the big screen. So I will certainly keep my eye out at the Film Forum, and other venues, for a Tarkovsky tribute week.)