It is fitting that the film that bears the name of Russia’s greatest Orthodox icon and fresco painter of the medieval period concludes with a montage of his intricately crafted images, with the camera lingering over their time-worn forms. Such knowledge does not give the feature any less resonance, nor does it reveal the content that precedes the painted pictures; instead, it augments the detail of the eight chapters – plus a prologue and epilogue – that comprise Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed sophomore effort.
In Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov), Tarkovsky endeavours to paint a portrait of mankind’s response to the change, crisis and chaos that characterises human existence, as personified by the perspective and experience of the famous artist. In doing so, he purposefully selects his subject for his guise as one of the most influential figures in the history of Russian culture, despite little being known about Rublev’s six-decade life.
Indeed, all information on his place of birth, year of death, and actions in between is a mere estimation, the physical remnants of his presence notwithstanding. With co-screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky (more recently known as the director of 1989 action effort Tango & Cash), Tarkovsky furnishes his script with events intimated to have not only inspired Rublev, but altered Russian society; its adherence to accounts of activities during the fifteenth century is much more substantiated and therefore accurate.
Accordingly, the individual elements of the narrative are less important than their impact in the feature’s entirety, but still a sweeping story is told. Accompanied by his fellow monks and painters Danil (Nikolay Grinko, War and Peace) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov, The Uninvited Guest), Andrei (Anatoliy Solonitsyn, No Path Through Fire) journeys from his monastery home as a young but wise man, to become immersed within the combat against the Tartar invaders over the course of twenty-five years.
Along the way, each interlude not only exemplifies the suffering of the nation’s citizenry in the medieval age, but informs the minutiae of Rublev’s works. As political and cultural destruction rages, he witnesses opponents of the state taken away, argues with his mentor over faith and fidelity to his calling, protects the meek and innocent even at the expense of others, manifests his uncertainty about his talents in a vow of silence, and delivers fellow creatives of all kinds into confidence.
Such episodic instances are indicative of the feature’s epic scale and scope, attempting to capture a theme so immense yet universal that no other approach is possible. The relevance of the events depicted to modern Russia is also of the utmost importance, with the film as much an enigmatic, interpretative exploration of the context of Rublev’s iconic content as it is a probing parallel of the oppression and anarchy that infused Russian society in various incarnations during Tarkovsky’s lifetime.
As such, it is far from surprising that the auteur began work on the film prior to finalising his debut effort Ivan’s Childhood, nor that the feature required significant time to come to fruition. The extended period that haunted its assemblage and eventual release is also somewhat expected, with the political flourishes seeing it kept from Soviet audiences upon completion. In the aftermath, several versions were circulated, cutting and fine-tuning contentious segments. A 186-minute version survives as the helmer’s preferred end product, after reaching Russian cinemas on Christmas Eve in 1971.
Even in its shortened form, Andrei Rublev is a majestic, poetic achievement; perhaps one only ever matched by Tarkovsky’s following films. The complex themes are enhanced in every frame by meticulously staged production and magnificently composed cinematography, both of the vivid and visceral variety, from the exquisite balloon ride that marks the feature’s flowing opening sequence, to the similarly fluid recurring motifs of running water and billowing fire, and including vast scenes of fights and frenzy beset by the beauty of the surrounding wilderness, as well as intimate conversations between the excellent performers.
Indeed, it is the precisely paced film’s relentlessly all-encompassing nature – of its ultimately unknowable figurehead, bruising surrounding subject, riveting dissection of the evolution of Russian culture, and of its audience’s emotions – that astounds, as chapter after chapter proves as enthralling, involving, emotive, immersive, intelligent and absorbing as the last. The drama and density of the feature’s introduction and climax may be among the finest committed to celluloid, a claim surely relevant to Tarkovsky’s entire effort, oeuvre and legacy left on the cinematic medium.