Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Andrei Rublev



USSR 1966 : Andrei Tarkovsky : 165 minutes

Tarkovskys 1962 debut Ivans Childhood marked the arrival of a bold new eye in world cinema – if not a voice, narrative being perhaps a weakness. But how were these gifts to be applied? Andrei Rublev reveals an artist experimenting with future paths, and while marginally a less successful film than Ivans Childhood, and perhaps even the least satisfactory of all his works – its a vital stage in his development, paving the way to his 1970s golden age.

Rublev contains nine sections – a discrete prologue; seven episodes from the life of Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn, the directors usual alter-ego), a 15th century icon painter; and finally, switching into colour, a long coda of close-ups from the surviving works. Each section examines some aspect of Tarkovskys interconnected themes: religious and artistic faith; the role of the artist in a troubled society; artistic development; acts of inspiration, creation and destruction. The results are wildly uneven, and Andrei Rublev can be counted only a partial success, the patchy fruit of exuberant, ambitious over-reach.

As would so often be the case with Tarkovsky, Rublev starts on a terrific high – ensuring that, whatever the longueurs of the rest of the movie, the viewer will give the benefit of the doubt. The prologue sees a group of peasants launching a rudimentary hot-air balloon – a patchwork of rags – from a church tower. The pioneer aviator – like the viewer – is thus granted a privileged view of his surrounding countryside – but there’s a drastic price to pay for sharing Gods perspective, represented by one of the most startling, virtuoso uses of freeze-frame in all cinema.

The seven proper chapters unfold in chronological order. The Buffoon is a violent vignette establishing the harsh repressiveness of middle-ages Russian society. Then the pace slows to a familiar Tarkovsky grind during the tedious Theophanos The Greek, in which Rublev visits a living legend of icon painting. Slightly more diverting, The Passion of Andrei sees Rublev explaining his controversial version of religion, illustrated by stark images of a wintry crucifixion – Christ eating snow, etc. Next, Pagan Holiday, 20 minutes quite unlike anything else in Rublev, or, indeed, in any other film, as the painter stumbles across a subfusc pagan ceremony. Distant, sharp violins fill the soundtrack, naked pagans run out of the forest, Rublev is tempted by a lusty wench, mist swirls and flames flare among the dark trees, sacrificial candle-lit boats float out over a black river, the pagans are hunted down and forced to swim for their lives as an impassive Rublev sails silently by.

Pagan Holiday is a magnificent, hallucinatory glimpse of the other side – the dreamiest, liveliest, least narrative-based passage in the film, but so powerful that its doubly unfortunate the next chapter, The Last Judgment, is such a clunker. A lengthy re-enactment of a Tartar attack on the city of Vladimir – which Rublev only narrowly manages to survive – its shot in a stilted manner, scored with blaring music, that would look old-fashioned in the most basic thirties westerns. Its hard to figure whats going on or why, and the whole section feels like Tarkovsky trying out a form of narrative cinema to which he clearly wasn’t suited. The viciousness of the Tartar attack is presumably supposed to appal the audience as much as it does Rublev – but the only truly harrowing footage is of a horse stumbling painfully down a set of stairs: shocking that he filmed it,inexcusable that he included it.

After a low-key caesura chronicling the impact of Vladimir upon Rublev – Vow of Silence – were then ready for The Bell, a self-contained film-within-the-film. Rublev is a withdrawn, peripheral figure, watching the efforts of teenage bell-founders son Boris, (Kolya Burlyayev, from Ivan) hired by a prince to strike a new bell. Boris, Rublev learns, has never actually made a bell himself, and makes it up as he goes along: faith in action, and the results are enough to restore Rublevs speech and his desire to paint. Tarkovsky sees aspects of himself in both Boris and Andrei, of course – the kid orders his superiors around like a wunderkind film director on-set, and the coda of icons also has cinematic parallels. Its like a story-board, the raw material from which these imaginary episodes were constructed, or perhaps a recap of what we’ve seen. Then we hear, then see rain, finally fading into a classic Tarkovsky shot of horses by a river, echoing the brief, shattering equine glimpse from the airbound prologue.

Rublev is a self-consciously epic work – a convincingly recreation of 23 years during a distant historical period, peopled with melodramatic, grumbling, bible-quoting monks, picturesque peasants, grinning Tartars. When its good, its astonishing. When its bad, its very tough going. But even the Vladimir siege has its moment of glory. Tarkovsky cuts again to a static, divine perspective, looking down on the devastation from an impossible height – two geese struggle upwards, sideways, out of shot. Remarkable the concept, dazzling the execution.

25th January, 2001

by Neil Young
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