#1 in my ranking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.
In production for a whole month before Nikita Khrushchev was deposed as head of the Soviet State and the cultural thaw he had led was forcibly ended, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev was a thorn in the side of the Soviet authorities for years. Explicitly religious with a clear-eyed look at the oppressive nature of Russian history, it was far from the sort of nationalistic fanfare about a Russian hero of the arts the authorities wanted for propaganda purposes. Finished in 1966, but not released within the USSR until 1971, Andrei Rublev has gained the reputation as one of the pinnacles of art house cinema. Using the promised resources from before the thaw, Tarkovsky crafted an intimate story of the artist and faith in the face of terror and oppression with an incredibly impressive scale at the same time.
It’s also an incredibly non-traditional piece of storytelling. Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), the historical figure, was one of Russia’s greatest painters of icons. Little is actually known of his life, so Tarkovsky used that open-endedness to craft a story about the artist’s relationship to his art. The story is a series of vignettes from 1400 to 1424, and in not a single one does Rublev hold a paint brush. He’s also silent for the film’s final hour. What each of these vignettes ends up doing is shake Rublev’s faith and his confidence in his art’s purpose in the world until his final decisions to go on and paint.
The story moves through these vignettes with a singular purpose and vision. Tied together by Rublev’s presence, involvement, and eventually just observation, each bit sees Rublev becoming increasingly disconnected from the violence of the world around him. It starts with a jester being carted away by authorities to prison, an artist (a bawdy one at that) being punished for performing his art in ways that the state didn’t approve. There are also dramatic presentations of a nighttime orgy by pagans that ends in the morning with the authorities carting the remnants away.
After seeing all of this, Rublev finds it impossible to work. Given the commission of painting the Last Judgment in the church at Vladimir by the Prince (Yuriy Nazarov), he cannot bring himself to paint such suffering. He wanders without purpose, trying to find a way to bring himself to do anything, but the church remains empty except for the scaffolding and blank, white walls waiting for him. His inaction drives his own artisans away, some of whom go with the Prince’s brother, the Grand Duke (also Yuriy Nazarov in a dual role), to work on his mansion instead. The Prince sends his men to massacre the artisans, news that nearly breaks Rublev. The arrival of a girl simpleton (Irma Raush), though, provides him with just enough hope to change his plans and paint a feast in place of the Last Judgment.
The next major section is titled “The Raid”, and in any other movie it would be the standout sequence. It’s the dramatization of the Grand Duke bringing in Tatars to attack the Prince at Vladimir. The scale of the production here is amazing, reminding me of the resources put behind Sergei Bondarchuk for his adaptation of War and Peace. The amount of cavalry, the scale of the destruction on screen with horses and troops plowing through the city, and even the on screen death of a real horse (shot in the neck by Tarkovsky himself, a horse that was going to be killed by a nearby slaughterhouse the next day, the carcass sent back for commercial consumption after filming). The invasion crescendos at the church, now fully painted, where the townspeople have gathered in fear with Andrei providing what solace he can to the simple girl. When the doors inevitably come down, Andrei takes an axe to save her life, killing the man carting her away. That act of killing finally breaks Andrei down, leaving him in a vow of silence where he can’t influence anything. He never paints and, years later, he can’t do anything when some Tatars come to the monastery he’s taken her entice her with shiny things and their leader makes her his eighth wife.
I said that any other movie would consider “The Raid” to be the standout sequence in the movie, but Andrei Rublev has “The Bell”. “The Bell” is some of my absolute favorite filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Rublev himself is barely in it, wandering through the action as purely an observer, and he’s observing the orphaned son of a bellmaker, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev). Boriska tells the Grand Duke’s men that all of the bellmakers in the area are dead due to the violence and disease that have afflicted the are for years and the only one left who knows the secret of bellmaking is Boriska himself.
He’s arrogant and haughty as he lays out his qualifications (none of which include actually having lead the creation of a bell), insisting that the spot too far from the walled city is the best and that none of the clay nearby is good enough to use, eventually finding the perfect clay some ways away in the rain (the point where Andrei sees him first). The experienced help are dismissive of Boriska, insisting that there are better ways to go about the efforts, but Boriska heads off in his own direction no matter what, flying by the seat of his pants while insisting he knows everything and probably knowing little. It’s even to the point where he demands an extra thirteen pounds of silver from the Grand Duke simply because he can.
We’ve watched all of this arrogance play out leading to the creation of a bell, huge and impressive, but there are doubts about its construction and ability to ring. As the bell rises out of the ground, Boriska becomes quiet, barely saying anything, and the tension as the clapper gets closer and closer to the bell’s interior is one of the tensest moments I’ve experienced. We know the dangers facing Boriska should things fail as well as the fact that he wasn’t disregarding good advice left and right, and yet we have no idea if it will ring or not at all.
Rublev finally speaks at the end, offering surprising solace to Boriska, and promising to find his art again to help bring beauty into the world. It’s Rublev seeing that even though his land has been ravaged, raped, and pillaged, it is his responsibility as an artist to create something beautiful with Tarkovsky ending the film with a several minute long montage of some of Rublev’s most famous works, ending with “The Trinity”, as the only elements of color in the whole film.
There’s something beautiful about this harsh journey we follow Tarkovsky on. The three Andreis (Tarkovsky, Rublev, and the co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky) have created a portrait of a historical artist wrestling with his art in a terrible time. Rublev is portrayed as an almost innocent, dedicated to his art meaning something for him to the fullest extent possible. Reconciling that desire for beauty with the ugliness of the world can also function as a dedication to faith in God, a rather obvious connection when the central character is a literal monk.
Andrei Rublev is an obviously deeply personal work on an incredibly grand scale. It’s also a fascinating historical anomaly as an individualist finds a way to tell such a personal and religiously spiritual story in the middle of the collectivist oppression that was the Soviet Union. There’s a reason Tarkovsky ended up in exile after a certain point.