I spent about twenty-five years in the fifteenth century last night: I saw Andrei Rublev
(1966) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
At the moment I am having difficulty thinking of a movie it would make less sense to write about, but I loved this one, so let's dance about architecture. Andrei Rublev
was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, co-written with Andrei Konchalovsky, and its current 183-minute version comes to us courtesy of a complicated history of cuts, censorship, and director's oft-elided preference; in its brief first life it was titled The Passion According to Andrei
, but I like the plainer title partly because it forces the audience to think about why a movie that behaves so little like a conventional biography is named after a figure who is not even always onscreen. Beyond his paintings and a handful of names and dates, not much is known about the historical Rublev. Even less may be required for this film: it's not an explanation or an interrogation of the great icon painter so much as an exploration of the interaction between an artist and their world, staged like a cross between a documentary and a dream and shot almost perversely in an elemental black and white that renders milk and smoke the same pale swirl, the same dark spillage lead and blood. Time is seen to pass like a succession of icons, each scene given a title and a year—"The Jester, 1400," "The Holiday, 1408," "The Bell, 1423"—and then permitted to run anywhere from the length of a conversation to most of the wheel of a year. Some of the events we witness are conventionally dramatic, recognizably life-changing; some are just the record of time in a place of birch forests and wild ducks, monks chopping wood and pagans lighting fires for St. John's Eve, artisans blinded before they can make better work for their employer's rival and cities sacked out of brotherly envy. A traveling joker with a drum entertains a stableful of peasants with a scurrilous satire on boyars and priests and the next minute soldiers are dragging him away. The artist refuses to terrify the faithful with an iconostasis of the Last Judgment, but the invading Tatars—by invitation of a Russian ally—burn the feast of peace and love he paints instead. He takes a vow of silence, forswears his art, and it changes precisely nothing. What is the use of making art in such a world of brutal, uncontrollable violence and cruelty, the film sometimes seems to be asking, and then, at other times, what is the use in such a world of not
making art? The medieval aeronaut of the mysterious prologue crashes to earth once his hot-air balloon of ropes and animal skins runs out of lift, but does that mean he was wrong to take that leap of faith from the church tower, that sickening, soaring swing out above a landscape seen for one vertiginous moment as completely as a frieze before we too fall and can't escape the world? We never see anything in this story with such clear distance again, not the politics, the geography, or the people. Why should we? We don't live in the big picture. We're the ploughman in that Bruegel painting, not God.
Andrei Rublev isn't God, either, although the movie almost incidentally makes a good case for him as a saint. As played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky's discovery and muse until his untimely death between Stalker
(1979) and Nostalghia
(1983), he could be a martyr in the old sense of a witness—a dreamily beautiful monk with eyes so deep-set and luminous they seem made for drawing in the world, absorbing the texture of wet twigs or the tint of a mad girl's hair like the tools of gold leaf or drying oil. Even with his soft beard scruff, he looks more than a little like one of the androgynous messengers of his own tradition, and he has a habit of appearing in the lives of others with the same seemingly quiet happenstance. But a recording angel would stand apart from this earth and all its frailties and calamities and Andrei the first time we meet him is ankle-deep in mud; later we'll see him scratched by branches, splashed with milk, eventually stained with his own and others' blood. As a young man, he argues a heresy of the Crucifixion so passionately that it unfolds before our eyes in the clothes and the snow and the worn, earthen faces of a peasant's book of hours. A pagan girl confounds him with her nakedness and her calm assertion of the holiness of sensual love, like the leap-fire he stumbled into that sets him briefly, non-metaphorically aflame; he loses one friend to jealousy and almost loses another through his own self-centered mistake; the capricious savagery of his land's rulers angers him to a silly, bitter, blasphemous act. The silence of his vow would make him even more otherworldly except that what he has to offer in the end is not an angel's-eye view. He's not some capital-A Artist, generic, archetypal. For all he's our lens on his century, he's not transparent prose. Nothing in this movie is transparent, except maybe the camera; it's a sticky, tactile, trampled world, like a surface of paint up close. You are always aware of the sweat of summer heat, the fog of winter frost, the ceaseless back-breaking work of pre-industrial daily life—the swarm of it, too, not just architecture and armies but the natural world that is always spilling into the most human-centered of scenes, Tarkovsky's horses rolling in spring grass or flicking their tails in the rain, a decomposing swan's wing prodded by a bored apprentice, the enameled ripple of a snake in a forest stream or the black fur of a cat crying its way among corpses in a burnt-out cathedral. "Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple," Andrei murmurs after the sack of Vladimir, but we have seen stranger sights already in this movie whose cinematography seems to draw no distinction between horror and folly and beauty, all clear-eyed and unjudging. Not impersonal. If Andrei Rublev
is a spiritual movie, and I think it is, it's not because it deals with religious art and dedication to God: it's because it's alive in every image, as if a field of flowers and an underpainted wall and the hands of a holy fool on a dead woman's braid are all equally essential, equally immanent. You can't get bored watching this movie unless you get bored with being in the world. If it asserts anything about the biographical Andrei Rublev, it must be that he too knew and lived in the world; he could not otherwise have painted images so out of it.
We do not, for the record, see him paint any of them. I'm not sure we see anyone in this movie engaged in the act of painting, even the preparatory kind that might precede the aesthetic decisions. Mostly we don't even see icons onscreen; they exist but are given no more emphasis than candlelight or river mist or the thick stiff pages of a book. When the film does decide to turn its attention to the work rather than the business of creation, it does so almost on the slant: the last scene before the epilogue is a self-contained narrative starring Nikolai Burlyaev with a high-strung swagger as Boriska, youngest son of a famous bellfounder who bargains his way out of his plague-destroyed village by claiming that he can, using the secret techniques his father passed to him before dying, cast a new bronze bell for the Grand Prince. He has a hill in sight of the city dug up for a casting-pit, spends months searching for the right kind of clay, browbeats the prince's emissaries over the right weight of silver, a slight, fever-spry figure in a tattered sheepskin coat, half the age of the men he's ordering around. It is a miniature epic of engineering and it pays off in astonishing shots like the firing of the mold or the pouring of the metal, a white-hot thunder of hand-built brick furnaces, channels suddenly streaming with scabbed molten light. Andrei watches whenever his errands take him outside the monastery, greying and silent, still witnessing. Only to Andrei will be revealed the secret behind the great bell now booming out across the fields with a somber, shimmering chime, like a cosmic punch line or the mystery of grace, and it will inspire him once again to change his life: "Come on. Let's go together, you and I. You'll cast bells; I'll paint icons." And only then do we see them, in the jewellike colors we have been withheld all film, the real, timeworn, wood-and-tempera articles, at first focused so closely that the screen fills with fragile abstracts of gilding and craquelure, gradually widening to show the faces and the figures, the halos and the feet and the wings, the animals, the robes, the angels sharing one cup like travelers at a table, the luminous face of the Redeemer finally, vast as vision, imperishable. It could have been terribly pretentious and instead it feels ecstatic, transcendent, alien. Tarkovsky is good at alienness; see Stalker
(1972). Andrei Rublev
never makes the mistake of behaving as though its characters are modern, but neither does it behave as though it's looking back at them. They are not museum pieces, these people and their material culture and their habits of mind. They come to us from another time and through no time at all. Whatever we see of them, we can at least see true.
I don't know if Andrei Rublev
will be my favorite movie by Tarkovsky. Oddly, it's the one that most reminded me of other things I've seen—Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal
(1957), Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
(1965), Derek Jarman's Sebastiane
(1976). It's somebody's life which doesn't make a moral. It's time out of joint and it's gorgeous. I was given a DVD of a previous version some years ago, but I'm glad I waited to see the movie on a big screen, because even in digital restoration the cinematography by Vadim Yusov and the faces of Solonitsyn, Burlyaev, Nikolai Grinko, Irma Raush, Rolan Bykov, Bolot Beyshenaliyev deserve to be appreciated in as widescreen and wandering a format as originally intended. I don't know how it would scale down. It might end up like a poster of Hieronymus Bosch. Thanks to a_reasonable_man
who got me the ticket, I got to fall through a couple of decades instead. This life brought to you by my dedicated backers at Patreon