In 1960, the Soviet Union launched a campaign lionizing Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev to encourage Russian pride during the post-Stalinist thaw. That narrowly opened the window for a cinematic bio-pic. Andrei Tarkovsky would have been the Party’s absolute last choice to make such a film, but somehow Mosfilm put it into production anyway. They were not happy with the results, demanding cuts and withholding Tarkosky’s epic from domestic distribution. However, the rest of world immediately hailed the film as a masterwork. It is a powerful but demanding film that anyone with a serious interest in cinema as a legit form of art must wrestle with eventually. There is no time like the present, because the digitally restored Andrei Rublev opens today in New York.
Do not expect a conventional biographical treatment. There are no scenes of the precocious Rublev in short pants. We never even see him paint a single bush-stroke. Instead, Tarkovsky and co-screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky (the great Russian director, who also helmed Tango & Cash) skip over years and even decades, focusing on seven incidents in his life, whose full significance and inter-connectedness will be revealed in the final scenes.
When we first meet Rublev, he is one of a trio of itinerant icon-painting monks. Despite his relative youth, Rublev’s reputation proceeds him, much to the consternation of his Iago-like colleague Kiril. When the master Theophanes the Greek requests Rublev to be his chief assistant and de facto anointed successor, Kiril’s rage prompts him to break with the Orthodox Church. Although fame and accolades are Rublev’s for the taking, he becomes increasingly disillusioned by the corruption of the Church and nobility, as well as the harsh and unjust conditions endured by the peasantry.
Rublev will also be traumatized by acts of barbarism that Tarkovsky stages in graphically violent long takes, on an epic scale worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. Over fifty years later, these sequences still have the power to shock, but it is worth noting a notorious scene in which a cow is set on fire was cut from all but the earliest edits (the cow was fine, by the way).
If you want to get sucked into somebody else’s life and throw your empathetic arms around them, Andrei Rublev will leave you cold like the Siberian tundra. However, the boldness of Tarkovsky’s grotesquely baroque vision is arresting, in an immersive kind of way. Even though they are ostensibly science fiction films, it is not hard to see echoes of Tarkovsky’s Daumier-and-Bruegel-like set pieces in Aleksey German’s Hard to Bea God and Andrzej Zuławski’s On the Silver Globe.
Frankly, it is Tarkovsky’s bold strokes that drive the film rather than his cast’s elocution and emoting. Still, Anatoly Solonitsyn performance as Rublev is genuinely haunting—you could even call it iconic. Yet, it might just be Nikolai Burlyayev’s manic, frantic portrayal of Boriska, a young aspiring bell-caster very likely in over his head that could very well define the film’s sense of hope and desperation.
Andrei Rublev is an unpolitical film, by just about every conceivable criterion, but it is easy to see why the Soviets thought it was bad for Party business. There is no question Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky vividly illustrate the dark side of orthodoxy—with a small “o.” Yet, the Vatican was hip enough to include on their “Great Films” list, compiled to mark the 100th anniversary of cinema (a pretty solid honor roll that includes obvious masterpieces and some genuinely worthy outliers). Frankly, it is the sort of film you are supposed to sink into and get a little lost in, but when it bites back, it clamps down hard. Highly recommended as one of the most important films ever, Andrei Rublev opens today (8/24) in New York, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.