As is my lot in life, I accidentally wandered into an awesome thing last night: the end of the Watersprite Film Festival here in Cambridge and its showing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s long, beautiful, and inimitably rich film, Andrei Rublev. It was a good thing I had a companion with me because this is the sort of film you seriously need to debrief about for a long time afterwards.
In the last ten or fifteen years, there have been a swathe of films that have come to be known as ‘biopics’: for example, The Aviator, Frida, La vie en Rose, Walk the Line, The Imitation Game — even Erin Brockovich or A Beautiful Mind. Basing novels or films around the lives of famous people is nothing new. These biopics let their protagonists’ stories drive them almost elegiacally: ‘look what a shining genius this person was, through it all, despite their flaws’, these films often seem to say. The fact of the matter is people’s lives are fascinating and they have their own contained, if irregular, plotting and resolutions.
Andrei Rublev is not a biopic. For one thing, although Rublev is a main character, his life does not drive the plot. Rather, the historical, religious forces of which Rublev is a part serve as the film’s engine. It is set in Russia during the early 1400s: a brutal time, filled with war, plague, famine, and great conflict between Orthodox Christianity and pagan spirituality. Unlike, for example, the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, which introduces Griet (the Girl herself) as a window on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, this film uses Rublev as a window on Russia itself. This is entirely consistent with the iconographic tradition, which is very much about the icon-writer’s situated-ness within a theological, aesthetic tradition, rather than his/her artistic genius. It is also necessary for the time that Tarkovsky was making the film: the late 1960s. Russia, he says, has seen oppressive regimes before — so is twentieth-century Communism anything new? The film was censored for at least two decades in Russia, after all.
In this film, faith is a form of rebellion against the meaninglessness of violence, oppression, and cruelty; again, a message which would have hit a 1960s Russian audience (or its government) as dangerous or offensive. Andrei is tried multiply: by weather, war, temptation of various kinds, rivalry, artist’s block, and post-traumatic shock. He copes in different ways, but most by becoming more and more beaten, eventually taking a vow of silence. What finally frees him, gives him back his paintbrush and his voice, is owning up to his priestly, painterly, and pedagogic vocation to make things, teach things, and care for people.
This is a film with a significant number of main characters who are monks or otherwise devout orthodox Christians, so it was not surprising that so many long passages of scripture were quoted outright in the film. Scripture is sometimes a comfort, sometimes a challenge, sometime a clobbering presence in this film; always there is a sense that the use of scripture could go any of these ways at any time. Another Christian (and typically Russian) presence is the ‘holy fool’ character, ‘Durochka’. She – and other ‘foolish’ or ‘buffoon’ characters constantly undermine the somber piety of the monks, or of long passages of scripture, by their direct and bewildering (and often caustic) emotion.
At one point during the film, Andrei is gathering firewood and stumbles upon a village of pagan revellers, dancing nude in the moonlight. He is transfixed. When some of the villagers become convinced that he is there to stop their party, they tie him up in a hut, cruciform, with his hands outstretched on beams. A naked woman engages him in conversation about why his faith should forbid his taking part in the revelry, suggesting that love is a good thing to be celebrated, not forbidden. She kisses him and then lets him go. Later in the film, Andrei struggles with his fellow painter, Danila’s, desire to paint frescoes of The Last Judgment on the inside of a cathedral. He suggests that such a scene is too much, too real, too close to the horror of reality for most Russians who might worship in the cathedral. As the naked woman has asked, he asks, ‘What is wrong with love?’ What is wrong with depicting divine love?
The film goes back and forth, as does the whole of the Christian tradition, between emphasis on the transcendent love of God, and the absolute worst than humans do to one another (rape, murder, torture, etc). Andrei cannot decide where his art and his sin stop and start and where other people’s lives, sins, and attempts at beauty, begin. This is why the encounter with the naked woman is so foundational: in order to escape the cruciform shape of violence of his own religion, Andrei must trust this pagan woman, even as he fears what she is. It is this act, along with others in the film, that force Andrei’s focus beyond even the richness of his own orthodox iconographic tradition to find meaning and redemption.
I’m not completely sure of all the nuances of what Tarkovsky (the director) wants to say about Russia — certainly something about endurance being central to what it means to be Russian. There is an equine motif to the film which I think has something to do with this. At various points in the film, horses play, are injured or killed, gallop and frolic, and stand patiently in the rain. All of these actions directly echo or prefigure the journey of human characters in the film. I need to watch it again (someday when I’ve got 3 and a half hours to spare) to pay closer attention, but this is my hypothesis for now.
The bell! The film is split into two halves, each of which has four distinct, titled episodes. The final episode is entitled ‘The Bell’ and is a sort of encapsulation of the whole of the film in a comparably short (!) 47-minute sequence about a young orphan who is tasked with casting a massive bronze bell for the Crown Prince. This is possibly the most accessible episode of the film and it is fitting that it comes almost at the end. The weight of Andrei’s silence is caught up with the bell’s silence — will it ring or not? Has the boy cast it properly? I found myself holding my breath, and thinking about how foreign to me the process of founding a bell is, and also how powerful and resonant. Much pondering is to come — its low sound rung in my ears long after I left the cinema.