Andrei Rublev is a letter to the history of Russia, to that spirit of endurance that the protagonist in Andrei Tarkovsky’s much-acclaimed film speaks of: “Our Russia, it has to endure everything.” The film is a critics’ favourite and has been considered pioneering in cinema in terms of the genre and the ideological crisis it succeeds in portraying. A biographical portrait of one of the greatest Russian medieval painters, Andrei Rublev, the film is innovative even by today’s standards of biopic filmmaking.
It breaks the cause-and-effect chain reaction that brings an artist to do this and that, a narrative trope followed all across the world to make biopics of various personalities. The film is also a loosely structured narrative that looks like a picaresque novel only without any adherence to space and time. A very anti-Aristotelian approach to the unities in a piece of art!
As far as the ideological crisis is concerned it is far easier to show the glory of God, the devil, and the various chapters of the Bible to establish religious concerns. But what makes Rublev a unique cinematic text is its ability to portray the unsaid and unknown. The mind versus the body, the body versus the soul, God versus human, the spiritual versus the religious, the sacred versus the profane, absence versus presence, binaries and debates are so easily personified and shown that it leaves us surprised. A feat of this scale alone is still hardly achievable in cinema and its diverse manifestations even today. Perhaps, that’s why Andrei Rublev is the gem it is considered to be. As the protagonist and his companion, Daniel, in the film say, to know you will never see that birch tree again makes it all the more beautiful. Andrei Rublev, like most of Tarkovsky’s films, does that: it shows the most mundane and ordinary as objects of everlasting beauty, sometimes with long poems and sometimes with long silences.
The film is divided into eight chapters and more than being a biography that celebrates the artist, it more or less gives glimpses into the painful history of Russia and the plight of its people. A representation of history not by its champions but the common people: an anti-historical film in that respect. The various chapters of the film deal with the rivalry between orthodox Christianity (widely practised in Russia even today) and paganism, the artist and inspiration from a society in civil strife, the Tartar wars and sibling rivalries of 15th-century Russia, natural calamities like famines, winter, etc. But all of these are not judged or shown through a particular perspective. Most of the events in the film are only observed and shown nonchalantly, their influence on the artist is never spoken of and Andrei himself is never shown in close-ups, further proving the point mentioned earlier about the film not being so much about the artist himself. His face is only momentarily revealed in certain scenes and the actor’s passive performance barely gives a glimpse into his mind; a mise en scène more than a montage film.
In Sculpting in Time, his book about art and cinema, Tarkovsky perfectly expounds on the meaning and purpose of art, and its relation to the spiritual. He says, “Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal; that longing which draws people to art… Art, like science, is a means of assimilating the world, an instrument of knowing it in the course of man’s journey towards what is called the ‘absolute truth’.” Perhaps that’s why the biography of an artist was the best plot device to explore some of the modern existential debates that existed in Europe at the time by finding verisimilitude in the history of 15th-century Russia through the iconic painter.
Post World War II, modernism as an aesthetic movement came to dominate Western philosophy and its entire artistic enterprise. With individual subjectivity gaining prime importance, Tarkovsky was presenting a world opposed to the nihilist worldview. As an answer to the existentialist questions of the 20th century, Tarkovsky presented through Andrei Rublev a supposition of importance, i.e., we are born alone and meant to die alone and in all our individual experiences on the journey of self-realisation we are all alone; but there is also a common factor in that chronology of human experience that binds us all in a sort of universal brotherhood. Tarkovsky and, likewise, Rublev’s source of inspiration at the end of the film comes from a boy (Nikolai Burlyaev) who undergoes struggles of his own kind to find meaning in his life and work. Likewise, Rublev finds redemption not in heaven or some other world, but on the very Earth through common humane experiences. For Tarkovsky’s oeuvre, inspiration and redemption go hand in hand. His efforts to get his films funded by the Soviet authorities and have them released were a disheartening struggle for a filmmaker who wanted to make cinema for himself and the sensibilities of his people. Andrei Rublev itself was unreleased in Russia for two decades after its completion. Only a heavily cut version was shown to the authorities at various private screenings, where it was usually censured for being out of tune with the political climate of Russia. Andrei Rublev, then, functions as a metaphor for an artist and the artist’s struggle in society.
An important contribution of the film is also in highlighting the vast expanse of religious life in Russia and its landscape. The plurality of Russian life, in terms of following paganism or practising orthodox Christianity or being cynical about supernatural power, is manifested and explored in the film without judgment. The artist himself goes through all three belief systems only to ascertain a humane feeling for his fellowmen, a belief re-established at the end of the film. Despite these and multiple other sequences in the film, there is nothing really much that goes on in it. Long takes complement long silences that keep the text open to interpretation even after four decades. Had Tarkovsky inserted heavy poetic monologues, the meaning of the text would have become prescribed and constricted, and the film nothing more than another pulpit piece.
The vastness of the landscape forces comparisons with the expanse of human imagination. Andrei is commissioned to paint “The Last Judgement” at a church in Vladimir. But he refuses to paint against his principles of terrorising men and women into submission. His crusade against organised religion begins thence and he loses his passion to paint. It is only in the later chapters of the film, where frames become tight and filled with people largely absent from the vastness earlier, that Andrei begins to undergo self-realisation. This is as opposed to earlier, when he was self-absorbed to the extent that all he saw were his own interpretations of lives around him. An evolution of self from the state of unknowing to knowing is so subtly represented, even through the imagery, that it is almost hard to catch until the very climax of the film.
There is also no concept of chronology in the film as is most usually found in the films of this genre. This anti-linearity of time that Tarkovsky religiously followed and mastered in his works also comes from a belief that he defended in Sculpting in Time: “That sort of fussily correct way of linking events usually involves arbitrarily forcing them into sequence in obedience to some abstract notion of order. And even when this is not so, even when the plot is governed by characters, one finds that the links which hold it together rest on a facile interpretation of life’s complexities.”
Some of the imagery of the film haunts you to the extent that you find it etched in your memory long after the film’s viewing experience has ended. Its slow deliberate pace can be testing but when compared with the inward battle that Andrei is fighting, it all seems to fall into place.
There are musical interruptions, puns on the Russian social and cultural milieu, and despondency and loneliness that mark not just Andrei, who mostly is a side character on the margins of screens, but also other characters in the film. Many actors are seen pensive, almost sad, in their encounter with the camera but there are no tragic backstories to reveal why. And like that, there are no answers or resolutions to anything in the film. Tarkovsky, like his protagonist, poses more and more questions only to give a colourful catharsis through the revelation of Andrei’s paintings at the end of the film, a moment that would fill one’s heart to its seams. The beauty of human experience finds itself manifested in various frescoes, and Rublev’s experiences, however tormented, reveal themselves not in the calmness of the saints’ faces he paints, but in the interesting colour coding that he uses to portray the plurality of human life and its beings. I’ll end by reproducing what a girl wrote to her mother after seeing another of Tarkovsky’s films, Mirror, perfectly encapsulating the appeal of Tarkovsky’s cinema (Tarkovsky printed the letter in Sculpting in Time):
“How many words does a person know? How many does he use in his everyday vocabulary? One hundred, two or three? We wrap up our feelings in words, try to express in words sorrow and joy and any sort of emotion: the very things that can’t be expressed. Romeo uttered beautiful words to Juliet, vivid, expressive words, but they surely didn’t say even half of what made his heart feel as if it was ready to jump out of his chest, and stopped him breathing, and made Juliet forget everything except her love?
There’s another kind of language, another form of communication: by means of feeling, and images. This is the contact that stops people being separated from each other, that brings down barriers… The frames of the screen move out, and the world which used to be partitioned off comes into us, becomes something real… and it’s Tarkovsky himself addressing the audience directly, as they sit on the other side of the screen.”
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.