Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev ★★★★★

When I reviewed Barry Lyndon. I stated that Stanley Kubrick was a man I perhaps admired more than anybody else. I said 'perhaps' in that sentence, because there was another name in the back of my mind, preventing me from asserting that confidently. That name was Andrei Tarkovsky, and re-watching this has cemented that assumption in my mind.

Andrei Rublev is one of those special, generational films that may only occur three or four times in an entire lifetime. By this, I mean that it is the film of a nation; a film that defines a whole people, a whole culture, a whole history. It is at once reflective and contemporary, expansive and personal.

I believe Carné achieved this for France, with Children of Paradise, managing to capture the tragic romanticism of the French people and silently define their plight during the Second World War. Visconti achieved this for Italy with The Leopard, presenting the geographical north-south divide of their people, and how what was once great and prominent must make way for a new Italy. Edward Yang found this essence in A Brighter Summer Day, examining how isolated and alone the people of Taiwan are, as they try to find some kind of culture amidst generational divide and degeneracy. Kurosawa captured it in Seven Samurai, showing Japan's traditional disconnect between the courageous samurai and the humble farmer, and their subsequent ignorance to one another. Victor Fleming showed this in regards to America with Gone with the Wind, the American Dream being built up, destroyed and hopelessly built up over and over again, such is the charming ignorance of the American psyche. David Lean, for the United Kingdom, found this in Lawrence of Arabia, shining a light on the hypocrisy of their colonial heroism. I would say that Ingmar Bergman too, achieved this for Sweden with Fanny and Alexander, but I'm not quite sure as to how.

Andrei Rublev falls very neatly into this category. It is the story of the Russian people. It is the story of the Russian Orthodoxy. It is the story of the Russian artist. It is also the story of contemporary Russia in 1966 and communism. Andrei Rublev is Russia.

The plot of Andrei Rublev is more thematic than it is literal. It is more of a philosophical contemplation than a driven plot. Mind, it still works exceptionally well as both a narrative story and a character study, but this really is more about Russia than it is about Rublev himself. Essentially, it is about the dynamic between the people and the church. Rublev, a renowned icon painter, struggles with his faith as he attempts to instil faith in the people through art. But he too, must grapple with the state and the church itself, with the oppressive, forceful regime, and the political turmoil following a Tartar invasion. Rublev's faith is in question here, and he is one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema, though many sadly disregard this argument as a result of the subtlety of his character development.

He starts off as a humanistic, hopeful monk, sympathetic to the 'Godless' people of Russia. He shows sympathy for their cause, and for the people, expressing, during philosophical debate, that the ignorance of the people is natural in accordance with their environment. He wants his work to inspire faith, not enforce it. He is, however, despite being a genuinely good person, a hypocrite. - Something which he is forced to address when confronted by a nude Pagan.

Rublev, throughout, is accompanied by a main cast of characters, each relevant for thematic reasons, and to contrast Rublev himself.

Kirill is a fellow monk who accompanies Rublev to Moscow. However, unlike the supremely talented Rublev, he is completely talentless, which he finds a virtue, in his bitterness. He is intelligent, though in a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual way. And he is intensely envious. He is the antithesis of Rublev, cynical and completely unsympathetic to the people, and conservative in his religious views. Kirill, however, despite his outward appearance, is still a deeply sympathetic character. In his envy and lack of talent, he finds clarity and is the only one to confront the bastardised, corrupt church. His clarity, however, isn't so much a result of revelation as it is a result of bitter envy and cynicism.

Danila is perhaps best described as a mean between the vices of Rublev's naïve and hypocritical humanism and Kirill's cynicism. He is withdrawn and silent, neither cynical nor humanistic, merely practical, quietly doing God's work with neither naivety nor hatred. He is perhaps the most admirable of the three monks in his humility, even if Rublev is likely a better person.

Theophanes the Greek, a famous icon painter himself, is similar to Kirill in that he is a cynic. However, he is a cynic despite his talent. He sees art as a chore, his students as imbecilic, and greatly clashes with Andrei, believing that the ignorance of the people is indeed a result of stupidity, as opposed to something natural. He is a dying man, contemptuous of more or less everything, and he is really the antithesis of Rublev, not Kirill. He is Rublev's mentor, a job which he initially offered to Kirill, though gave to Rublev when hearing of his presence.

And then there are characters like Foma and Durochka. Foma, a young apprentice of Andrei's, lacks integrity in his art, seeking only to paint, but not to create meaningful art. He lacks discipline or patience, being akin to the naïve Russian citizen, contrasting with Kirill and Theophanes' authoritarian state-like ways. Rublev, of course, is caught in the middle of this, trying to serve religion to the faithless people he sympathises with. Duroshka, a holy fool and mute, almost becomes a source of inspiration to Andrei, not only in art, but in religion, in her simple-minded innocence.

All of these characters play significant roles in both the themes of the film, and the character of Rublev. They establish thematic and philosophical principles, of which Rublev will subsequently attempt to wade through, in his quest for creating meaningful icons. Though established as humanistic, the events of the film begin to incline him towards the principles of the aforementioned Kirill and Theophanes. In these times of hardship, he abandons his art and finds solace in their cynicism. And it is the events in the final third of the film, which endear him to re-adopt his humanistic methods and create the trinity, Rublev's most famed work; the return of an old and dishevelled Kirill, pleading for forgiveness in his final years; a young man, who builds a bell under the eye of the Grand Prince, lying about a secret to bell-making his father told him, and breaking down at Rublev's feet as a result; Durochka, being tempted to become a concubine for a Tartar, who humiliates her and tempts her into eating horse meat, subsequently leaving Rublev's miserable, withered soul alone. It is a subtle, yet grand, beautiful tale.

Andrei Rublev is told in a series of novellas; chapters, as it says. In each of these chapters, Rublev is at a certain stage of development. And in each of these chapters, there is a significant jump, both in time and in the contents of the plot. This isn't told conventionally. Andrei Rublev is like a series of moments that inspired his work. It's not a story as much as it is an observation; an analysis.

And, I have seen, often, criticisms of Andrei Rublev's plot, partly because of the fragmented structure, and partly because of the seemingly incoherent plot. But I would dispute this notion. Everything in the plot, and every single character serves both Rublev and the themes of the plot. There might be things considered abstract, but they are always relevant. In fact, rather than a detriment to the film, the screenplay is not only one of its greatest parts, but a complete masterpiece of screenwriting. Despite the scope, everything is ultimately concentrated, which is something most films like Andrei Rublev fail to do. The opening scene is disconnected from the plot to show how widespread and overbearing censorship is, this being a quite obvious allusion to the ignorant mob, restricting creativity and freedom, as is the case throughout the rest of the film. See the skomorokh, who jested of the boyars and the state getting his tongue cut out, thanks to Kirill. See the eye-gouging scene. See the horse, what could be seen as an image of freedom, falling helplessly down a flight of stairs. (I am willing to address that how this horse was treated on set was revolting, but it has little to do with the finished product, which is what I am analysing.) All of these allusions to oppression from the state are manifestations of that opening scene. The final scene is one of the most beautiful things in the history of cinema, bursting into colour and panning over the work of Rublev which has resulted from the events from the film. The final chapter, containing a sub-plot is still very relevant to the film and Rublev himself. Though very much more unorthodox in nature, the screenplay is still a marvel to be awed at.

The dialogue is excellent in Andrei Rublev. Exposition isn't forced and the implications behind the dialogue bears so much weight and emotional subtext. It can at times be scarce, and even lack of dialogue is used for effect, but every line is significant and substantial.

Narratively, Andrei Rublev is unconventional. But in this unconventional style of storytelling, a new poetic beauty is found, the likes of which could only be discovered by an artist such as Tarkovsky. Every choice in character, dialogue, structure and plot holds some sort of significance, making for what is a deeply compelling masterpiece in storytelling. I believe that when people criticise the screenplay, they are merely expressing frustration at the fact that they did not understand the plot. Because, I will make it abundantly clear that this is a film that requires a great amount of attention and concentration to understand. I talked of everything being relevant to the characters and plot, which means that to miss one thing is to miss everything else. Everything here is motivated by everything.

Stylistically, Andrei Rublev is not quite as Tarkovskyan a his later works, but it definitely develops on Ivan's Childhood and Tarkovsky adopts his own style. There certainly is more liberal cinematography and editing than would later apply to Tarkovsky's filmmaking, but there is definitely evidence of minimalization, and honing in on one style.

First and foremost, Andrei Rublev is near the peak of cinematographical mastery. It really is such an effective picture. Ivan's Childhood was more focused on creating compositions through complex blocking and framing, with a higher emphasis on space between the characters and the camera. Meanwhile, the compositions of Andrei Rublev are more distanced and subtle. This is not as heavily stylised as Tarkovsky's former film. However, the framing is still massively effective. The contrasts and imagery depicted between foreground and background is incredible. Shot sizes are selected on a scale of how personal they are, and the characters are blocked in a more subtle manner than in Ivan's Childhood, the images feeling a lot more spontaneous, as was Tarkovsky's cinematographical philosophy, yet all the more rich, often circling around each other or being theatrically blocked in wide shots that tell entire stories in images too.

There is a certain distance to this film at some points, yet unmistakable closeness in proximity at others, all befitting of the nature of the film. There is an ease to the cinematography; a rich spontaneity, brimming with life. Everything is relative to everything else in Andrei Rublev.

And it's not only that, but the camera movements are so sophisticated too. Everything is flowing yet significant in its own right. The camera tends to follow characters in a manner logical to themselves and the plot. It doesn't attempt any kind of excess, finding its beauty in the subtle movements, and the subtle compositions found within them. The slow dollies, pans and tilts are essential in attaining that aforesaid beautifully spontaneous style.

And on top of all that, this is just such an aesthetically pleasing film to look at. The mise en scène is stunning. Nothing feels artificial or forced, yet there is an unmistakable grandeur omnipresent throughout. - Something bigger than the sum of this film's parts, which I believe is found in the mise en scène, with its massive scale that still manages to come off as personal.

Andrei Rublev is edited in accordance with its style. The methods of montage are applied so subtly, yet so effectively. This is a great example of the editing letting the cinematography breathe. The cuts are all well-timed too. Editing doesn't have to be flashy or noticeable, so long as it is effective and serves the cinematographical context well. Both of my criticisms, however, can be found in the editing. For one, there is a shot at the beginning of the film where a freeze frame was zoomed in on. I can understand that this was a well-founded idea, but it was impractical and poorly executed. My second issue could maybe be attributed to the screenplay, but I believe it could have been fixed with editing. During the scene where Boris searches for the right clay, the passage of time is not really implied here, even though it is in the dialogue. Whilst one could argue that more time should have been given to this scene, I believe simply fading from shot-to-shot would have been a more efficient solution. Regardless, Andrei Rublev is still an expertly edited film, minus some miniscule exceptions.

In regards to the sound design, it is, just as in every film from Tarkovsky, excellent. The background noises throughout, add another layer of substance and vibrancy to the film. Sound design is an aspect of filmmaking too often looked over, and when applied not just logically, but thematically, intellectually, poetically, it adds an entirely new dimension to the film. Not to mention that the score is massive and beautiful in its own right, and is excellently applied in regards to sound editing.

I believe Anatoly Solonitsyn is the most underrated actor in the entire history of cinema. - The entire history of cinema. This is his best performance, and one of the greatest performances in history. It is a restrained performance, yet simultaneously succeeds to be so intensely emotive. Ivan Lapikov as Kirill is also one of the greatest supporting performances of all time, despite the fact that for the majority of the film, he is missing. Nikolai Sergeev as Theophanes the Greek is just as good as Sergeev's. Tarkovsky regular Nikolai Grinko is excellent great as Danila, and Nikolay Burlyaev returning from his role as Ivan in Ivan's Childhood, is just as good in the role of Boris. It's not something often as well-regarded in Tarkovsky's cinema, the acting, at least in comparison to other elements such as cinematography and sound design, but it really is top tier in all of his films.

There's a certain poetic beauty to Andrei Rublev, which I'm not sure has ever really been achieved in an epic of this proportion before or since. Though grand and sweeping, and investing, there is a personal degree achieved here. It is indeed the film of Russia. The film of the Russian people and the film of the Russian person. This is the film of art and the film of the artist, the film of the Church and the film of the Christian. There is a scope achieved here, but it is a deeply emotive and personal scope, which applies both universally and individually. This is perhaps achieved by the narrative and stylistic techniques applied, and how they intertwine with one another. Since my first two times watching Andrei Rublev, I have now come to appreciate it even more. I've recognised more details, both grand and individual. It's a transcendental film, but it's not really transcendental filmmaking like his other films are. I finished this film and simply thought to myself 'I will never make a film like this, there is no point'. I've heard that is why Bresson switched from painting to filmmaking. But there is just something other-worldly about this film, something which makes it hard to believe this was made by a man. The plot, the narrative style, the characters, the imagery, the compositions, the movements, the sound, the editing, the acting, the beauty. It's one of those complete films, and as I said many paragraphs ago, one of those films of national identity. But I think Andrei Rublev is more than a national identity. It is a religious identity and a cultural identity. The two minor flaws prevent this from entering Godfather territory, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is a thoroughly deserving 5* film.

96/100

James liked these reviews