Want to get serious about Russian cinema? Andrei Tarkovsky’s 15th-century epic portrays the travails of an artist at odds with his world — a medieval nightmare far more cruel than the Cold War indifference and suspicion that Tarkovsky experienced in his own industry. It’s perhaps his masterpiece, a ‘safe’ historical story that nevertheless was too personal and religious to escape Soviet censorship.
The Criterion Collection 34
1966 / B&W and Color / 2:35 widescreen / 183, 205 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 25, 2018 / 49.95
Starring: Anatoly Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev, Irma Raush.
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
Film Editor: Ludmila Feignova
Original Music: Viacheslav Ovchinnikov
Produced by Tamara Ogorodnikova
Written and Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is an epic with a rich background in Russian art and history, and its main theme is the dilemma of the artist in a savage world. I very much want to recommend it to adventurous viewers that might normally stay away from a three-hour foreign film. It’s a lot more accessible than some of his other pictures — the way that scenes are staged is highly individual. It may be the director’s best picture overall.
The Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky definitely belongs to the upper echelon of world-class filmmakers. I’m most intrigued by his science fiction epics Solaris and Stalker, which for some are no less daunting than his later, somewhat Bergman-like expressions of ‘stasis of the soul.’ Being a career filmmaker in the Soviet Union was never easy. Even the great Eisenstein went in and out of favor. Achieving notoriety could be a curse, as an artist might be penalized for inspiring a cult of personality, or if his works were interpreted as incompatible with shifting definitions of the approved Social Realist aesthetic. The Soviet cultural bureaus wanted to win international acclaim, but they also felt compelled to impose tight controls on the content of everything produced: does this project serve the state?
One way to sidestep the pitfall of political criticism was to avoid contemporary topics. Subject matter considered safe were Fairy tale fantasies and stories set in an un-controversial historical past. 1966’s Andrei Rublev at first might seem a safe bet. The 15th-century artist was considered a national treasure despite the context of traditional Christianity that was normally discouraged in Cold-War Soviet cinema. Although filmed in B&W, it’s a huge, prestigious production with a large cast, grandiose authentic sets and enough mounted horsemen for an epic about warfare. The ideology presented far predates 20th-century political issues, but truthful stories about the problems of living are applicable to any setting. Painter Andrei Rublev’s artistic vision and temperament are at great odds with the dangerous medieval society around him — a description that applies just as well to the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.
The 186-minute approved director’s cut retains the same structure of the longer 1966 cut that was initially suppressed. It is divided into a number of episodes that span several years in Andrei Rublev’s life, from his post- apprentice wanderings to when he vows that he will go forth to paint his major icons. Each chapter is a rumination on the forces affecting an artist. Tarkovsky (along with one of his writers, Andrei Konchalovsky) throws his thematic net wide. The first episode is an unrelated piece about an adventurous inventor’s Icarus-like ride in a hot-air balloon. In a spirit of creative discovery, the balloonist is elated by the sensation of breaking the bonds of nature’s laws. Like an artist, he feels the exhilaration of ‘going beyond’ — we just hope his experience isn’t meant to set a metaphoric pattern for Andrei’s life.
One might think that a show about a medieval icon painter would be a trifle remote to modern experience, but it’s not. Andrei has ambitions that would seem foolhardy in his brutal world of petty fiefdoms and invading foreigners. As a religious artist — no other kind seems to have been tolerated — he’s a humble monk in need of guidance, protection and patronage. He spends several chapters in the company of other monk-artists of varying drive and talent. His experience isn’t that different than that of a modern commercial or fine artist today, except that the opportunities are narrower and everyday life woefully insecure. The monks aren’t above backbiting competition, and at one point Andrei is the recipient of a serious betrayal. A less scrupulous colleague meets a highly respected, established painter, and is crushed when the man asks about Rublev, who he has been told has talent. Of such things bitter jealousies are born.
The group spends some of its time drifting through melancholy forests and other hostile landscapes where any manner of threats wait to claim them. Some of the chapters deal simply with formative experiences, and others relate to Rublev’s wrestling with his artistic instincts. At no point does Tarkovsky depict Rublev creating one of his masterpieces. That effort is often a cinematic dead end: critic Pauline Kael enjoyed disparaging David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, in which Lean shows Omar Sharif waxing creative and writing poetry by cutting to pretty images of flowers and ice crystals, backed by ‘big’ music.
At first each episode seems wholly arbitrary. in their wanderings, Rublev and others come upon a band of pagans celebrating along a riverbed, running, dancing and singing naked. Rublev is fascinated, and almost killed when he cannot resist peeping at a couple making love. Tarkovsky’s camerawork is almost unbelievably fluid. We move in and among groups of people in motion, in beautifully timed lengthy mastershots. Yet all the activity we see plays like natural, undirected action. Tarkovsky’s cutting is continuity-invisible: our interest is definitely directed, but the presentation is so fresh and arresting that we feel as if we are discovering each event as it happens. If this is a style, it’s more organic than what we’re accustomed to seeing, by conventional master directors that rely on dynamic angles, jarring editing, circus-like orchestrated long takes, or even static masters that enforce a sense of real time grinding by.
Rublev acquires acolytes and a helper who stands by, ready to clean brushes. For a while he even has a female hanger-on, a mentally-challenged woman. One important chapter shows him in a state of creative blockage. The interior of a building awaits his work, presumably to be covered with murals. The problem is that the Bishop awarding the commission expects gory, frightening images of The Last Judgment. Dead set against oppressive, frightening imagery, Rublev is instead fixed on using his work to uplift, to express divine beauty. When an artist has a creative block we usually suspect that he’s procrastinating or lazy or a fake who knows he has no talent to begin with. This Bishop has given Rublev an ultimatum to get the job done. His fellow associates take time off to do a smaller, less demanding job for a Grand Prince.
The cruelty of this world becomes more evident with each chapter. When their patron isn’t fully satisfied, the artists that do the smaller job suffer a terrible fate that could only happen in an absolute power environment. The Grand Prince also doesn’t want his ‘special’ commissioned artwork to be duplicated anywhere else, especially not at the house of his brother, a potential usurper. The penalty for being an artist is not pretty: the Grand Prince ambushes the artists after they leave.
In a later chapter a conquering army shows up, a horde of Tatars with faces more Asian than the locals. They’ve allied with the Grand Prince’s jealous brother. The Tatar leaders joke as they share plunder and discuss tactics that consist mainly of rape, pillage and murder, followed by burning towns to the ground. Some civilians are left unharmed as they stand and watch, but the horsemen cut down others for sport. They are particularly merciless with church men. A later attack on a monastery is even more violent — an awful, sadistic atrocity awaits one priest. Rublev loses his attendants. The woman rides off happily with a Tartar who laughs and gives her robes and a crown to wear. Tarkovsky again choreographs an amazingly realistic tapestry of organized chaos. The Tatar cavalry ride with a precision that puts John Ford movies to shame. Master shots overwhelm us with complicated action — not the ‘look at all my toys’ complexity of some epics, but a convincingly earthy spectacle.
The Tatar episode is the most violent, and we’re doubly shocked by the casual nature of some of the killings. That’s all business as usual for medieval conquerors, as more terror presumably means less resistance from helpless peons in the next burg they knock over. Andrei Rublev is a fly on the wall for these awful spectacles, and much more than a dumb survivor. He is soaking up these harsh life lessons, which also prepare us for the unforgettable final chapter, about a giant bell.
Rublev is again a sort of bystander, along with one of his former colleagues and his female hanger-on, who has apparently been set free by her Tatar admirer. The Grand Prince has commissioned the casting of a large ceremonial bell, but the master bell-maker has just died. The artisan’s young son assures all that his father has told him all the secrets of his rarified trade, but as the work progresses we realize that something is very wrong. Barely a teenager, the kid must argue and throw tantrums to get his workmen to follow instructions. They question the son’s authority every step of the way, as he rejects the clay they’ve selected, etc. The boy seems tortured by self-doubt, knowing that the day will come to test the bell. The Grand Prince and half the district will find out whether or not the son is a fraud, and heads may very well roll. The suspense is unbearable as the son suffers a near-breakdown. When the episode is over, Rublev has absorbed this experience as well — it’s extreme, but positive.
The film then changes to color for a conclusion that simply celebrates the great artworks that Rublev went on to paint. The only way forward is to stick to one’s beliefs: instead of gory Crucifixions or the tortures of saints, Rublev’s stylized icons are beatific expressions of love, goodness and faith. After all the jeopardy, cruelty and insecurity of Rublev’s story, the show concludes on a surprisingly positive note.
I find the film too engaging and suspenseful to be classified with ‘remote’ high-toned art films. Tarkovsky does not challenge the viewer with alienation effects. The storyline never loses my attention, and a little reading (or a looksee at some of Criterion’s extras) will generate even more interest. Although we don’t get ‘inside’ Tarkovsky’s characters, Rublev is still an easy identification figure. The horrors he witnesses provide ample reason to hope that he survives to triumph in his art.
Andrei Rublev was reportedly screened just once in 1966 before being shelved for several years. It was then shown at Cannes in 1969, practically by international demand. Its first Soviet release came in 1971 and it was finally exported in 1973, but always in a censored version. The previous Criterion laserdisc and DVD carried the original full-length first version, given the title The Passion According to Andrei. Although it is the original cut, Tarkovsky later decided that a shorter edit is his definitive director’s version. Evidence of the director’s vaunted reputation can be seen in the fact that his longer cuts weren’t destroyed, just suppressed.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Andrei Rublev is a two-disc set containing both versions, a high-definition encoding of the shorter approved version, and a rendering of the longer 205-minute The Passion According to Andrei that looks identical to the unimproved transfer seen on the old DVD, except rendered at 1080p. The director’s cut is a big improvement over the old DVD, which was one of Criterion’s first releases on the format.
Criterion’s extras will more than satisfy lovers of Andrei Tarkovsky, of which there are many. Tarkovsky’s 1961 thesis film is here; Criterion previously presented the director’s 1956 student film version of Hemingway’s The Killers on DVD in 2003.
Older documentary items are a 1966 film about the writing of the screenplay, and a selection of scenes filmed on the film’s set. A new making-of documentary has input from one of the film’s cameramen and Nikolai Burlaev, who plays the bellmaker’s son. Film scholars Robert Bird and Vlada Petrić contribute, respectively, an interview and a partial commentary; and Daniel Raim has put together a video essay.
On the insert foldout is an incisive J. Hoberman essay plus some writings by director Tarkovsky.
Andrei Rublev comes under attack at times for scenes of cruelty to animals. As the mistreatment of animals on film is one of today’s strongest reaction triggers, it must be said that the short version mercifully abbreviates the death of the horse during the Tatar attack scene — it still falls down a flight of stairs, but the rest of the original scene has been cut. A shot of a cow set aflame has been dropped as well. I may be wrong, but a convincing atrocity committed against a helpless human victim seems cut as well, or an alternate take has been substituted.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements (from Criterion): The Passion According to Andrei, the original 205-minute version of the film; Steamroller and Violin, Tarkovsky’s 1961 student thesis film; The Three Andreis, a 1966 documentary about the writing of the film’s script; On the Set ofAndrei Rublev, a 1966 making-of documentary; New interviews with actor Nikolai Burlyaev and cinematographer Vadim Yusov by filmmakers Seán Martin and Louise Milne; New interview with film scholar Robert Bird; Selected-scene commentary from 1998 featuring film scholar Vlada Petrić; New video essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim; insert foldout with an essay by critic J. Hoberman and remarks by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in card and plastic holder, in slip case
Reviewed: November 3, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson