“About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters,” W.H. Auden wrote in his poem on Brueghel. The words could easily have applied to both the subject and the creator of Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 masterpiece. A film about suffering and art, the spiritual journey towards transendence, and the muddy, sodden reality of day-to-day life. It is one of the most profound and moving experiences that cinema has ever conveyed. It begins with a prologue as a man, some Leonardo or Galileo of the Steppes perhaps, takes a giddy flight with a cobbled together hot air balloon.
This medieval Icarus rises from the bell tower and soars over the wetlands. Horses run in the distance and men shout up at him from boats. The bladders will leak; his hopes will be crushed, but was that glimpse, that aerial view of life, however brief, worth it? The film proper is structured around a series of titled episodes in the life of the Fifteenth Century monk and icon painter, Andrei Rublev, played by Anatoly Solonitsyn who would go on to feature in all of Tarkovksy’s work until Stalker in 1979 would effectively kill him.
Each episode stands as vignette, a panel representing an artist’s Stations of the Cross. Rublev himself is an enigmatic, quiet (ultimately silent) character; a watchful man who absorbs what is happening around him, as much a symbol of the audience as he is of the artist and perhaps film director. And what is happening around him, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, is life: ‘nasty, brutish and short’. A jester, or buffoon as the title card reads (Rolan Bykov), entertains a barn-full of drunken peasants with a ribald song as Rublev and his fellow monks take shelter from the rain. After mocking priests as well, the jester is arrested by a group of soldiers, who were perhaps called by one of Rublev’s confraternity, and led off to torture and perhaps death as the sun comes out once more.
The casual brutality which will be the jester’s likely fate can be seen in the next sequence. A famed Greek icon painter Theophanes (Nikolai Sergeyev) complains that his apprentices have all gone to see the torture and execution of a prisoner. Theophanes will promote Andrei above his rivals and serve as a mentor, but most of this will happen in the white space between the episodes as the portrait of the artist is made up of increasingly widely spaced mosaic tiles. We see Andrei’s vision of Christ crucified in the snow; his inability to begin the Last Judgement until an act of atrocious violence on the part of his patron the Grand Prince and the innocence of a holy fool (played by Tarkovsky’s wife, Irma Raush) spurs him into anguished creativity.
It is the amazing comprehensiveness of Tarkovsky’s vision which is breathtaking. The way he so readily understands the niggles of an artist’s life – the petty jealousy and vanity – as well as the overwhelming challenges: the white washed cathedral is the biggest blank page in history; his patron the most corrupt customer you can imagine. The sudden rain, the freezing snow and the changing sunshine on the hills, the sounds of the insects in the mid-summer fields are all here. The nightmare of history is also on display in all its vulgar horror as torture and murder and rape visit the Vladimir in the form of a Tartar raid led by the Prince’s treacherous brother. A horse – the image of life and hope in the prologue – is seen falling down a flight of steps and into the river to be swept away. This is a savage and hard-to-stomach vision of cruelty and leads Andrei himself to murder and from there, a complete withdrawal from the world. His ambitions now meaningless when confronted with what Kurtz called “the horror”.
The inhumanity of pre-Soviet Russia mirrors the long genocidal winter of the USSR, but despite his religious subject matter Tarkovsky does not retreat into misty-eyed mysticism. For him, it is the individual moment of epiphany, the miracle of imaginative creation which glimpses the divine. The actual church is too far steeped in the blood and the mire of its political compromises. The uninhibited free-loving pagans who tempt Andrei in the old Russian woods are persecuted, representing a heterodox freedom the church cannot permit. The image of the naked pagan girl swimming past Andrei’s boat and away from her murderers is mysterious, beautiful and tragic. It is an expression of loss. She has nowhere to go, but still she swims on.
A final setpiece shows the forging of a massive bell. The bell-maker has died of the plague and his only surviving son Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who claims to know the secrets of his father, is given the task of co-ordinating the work. Like an epic film, it soon involves a cast of hundreds and an endeavor that resembles an embryonic industrial revolution. There’s mud, fire and water and Andrei is now a silent witness to the gargantuan effort, his own artistic life rekindling from the embers. The patron is once more the venal Grand Prince who has decided, with the arbitrary cruelty of every dictator, to behead the artisans if the bell doesn’t ring. The bell’s ringing is no longer about the glory of God – not this God, anyhow – it is about survival, both literal and the survival of human hope.
Tarkovky’s film is an epic celebration of the artist, but it is also a denunciation of the dirty, soiled, corrupt world in which art lives and the suffering, the endless suffering ‘while the executioner’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree’.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty