When I fall in love at first sight with a movie, I usually see it many times over, revisiting my initial delight over the years and most likely finding new things to love, but Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev somehow slipped through that net. I first saw it a little over 30 years ago and haven’t seen it since, though I remember that viewing as one of my most intense film-watching experiences of all time.
For a long time, I didn’t watch it again because it was hard to find a good version: the Columbia Pictures cut that was first released in the U.S. reportedly butchered the three-hour-plus movie, and this is not the kind of film that pops up much on TV. By the time I got Criterion’s director’s cut DVD, so much time had passed that I was a little afraid of watching it, in case my love for it had been some adolescent infatuation and the second viewing would ruin the memory of the first. I even avoided reading about it, wanting to hold onto that unsullied first impression. But you can’t avoid knowing that Andrei Rublev is considered a masterpiece if you read much at all about movies, so when I finally pulled up my socks and popped it in the DVD player last night, I was reasonably hopeful that I’d still feel the same way.
You can only have the top of your head sliced off once by a film that finds new ways of using the medium, since it can’t be new to you twice, so I didn’t feel that coup de fedre a second time. But the love was there from the start, an amazing prologue in which a man goes up in a crude homemade hot air balloon. Escaping a hectic, unstable situation on the ground (we don’t know what’s going on exactly, but it doesn’t look good), he floats up into the quiet sky, and though his ragged breathing and the dark, choppy strings maintain a sense of unease, he’s exhilarated for a moment, drunk on the then-miraculous aerial view. He crash-lands and we cut from his perspective to a long shot of a beautiful horse rolling back and forth in luxurious slow motion. Then the horse gets up and trots off, revealing the fallen man and his balloon, which is leaking air like a deflated lung.
That prologue introduces seven chapters about the life and times of Rublev, a 15th-century monk now considered the greatest of Russia’s icon painters. It has nothing to do with Rublev directly, but it sets the tone for what follows, with its unglamorized view of the warring tribes that were killing each other all over Russia in those days, to the artistic impulse that leads men to create marvelous objects to transcend their troubles, to the gorgeous and poetic imagery.
The gorgeous and poetic black-and-white imagery, I should add, since the biggest surprise to me last night was that the film wasn’t in color. It astounds me to say that, even embarrasses me a little—how could I have such a clear false memory of something so important?—but I take it as proof of how deeply Tarkovsky made me experience the color in the epilogue, where he pans over some of Rublev’s frescoes and icons, starting with a shot so close up it’s an abstract explosion of red and gold.
By the time we see those images, paintings that would probably have looked flat and fairly meaningless to me in another context (I am not a Christian and I don’t know much about icons) are imbued with sorrow and pity, informed by what Tarkovsky has shown us about the horrors Rublev lived through and his struggles to create art that could express the empathy he felt for his beleaguered people.
Apparently not much is known about Rublev, but that hasn’t stopped other filmmakers from making speculative biopics full of invented psychological detail. Tarkovsky follows another path altogether. In fact, he forges a new path, tying his chapters together with the loosest of threads, sometimes leaving Rublev out altogether or including him only as a fleeting presence in the background, as he paints a picture of the world he lived in.
Essays have no doubt been written just about the horses in this film (if you know of a good one, please let me know). From that rolling horse in the epilogue to the warhorses that thunder across the screen Kurosawa-style, from the lone horse that paws at the water during a pagan orgy to the terrified beast whose death during the sacking of a town sums up the horror of that event (the horse was actually bought from a slaughterhouse and killed in the film, in a sequence I could barely stand to watch), horses are everywhere. I don’t want to go all grad-school on you because this film is a piece of art about the role of art and in no way didactic, but those animals spoke to me with sometimes painful clarity about things like the beauty of nature, man’s capacity for inhumanity, and the life-affirming joy of unfettered movement and exploration—themes this movie explores with rare depth and sensitivity.
Tarkovsky uses the extremely wide (2:35:1) screen to show us how people live in relation to each other and their environments. He often frames his shots to show foreground and background or inside and out at the same time, which multiplies that effect and makes his shots that much more full of life. Close-ups are used sparingly, but he fills the frame with wonderful faces, sometimes doing a slow 360-degree pan around a roomful of people to show all the faces.
There’s a fair amount of talk about what really matters in painting and in life, but this is not a talky movie, and it focuses on the daily difficulty, even drudgery of making art as much as it does intellectual theories. In the chapter about the forging of a cathedral bell, we feel that drudgery and challenge intensely through the boy who winds up leading the massive effort after his father, the bellmaker, dies in the plague. The boy, Boriska, takes on the whole weight of the project, collapsing only at the end when the bell is hoisted and rings true and clear.
And always, sometimes in the background but often almost unbearably close up, we see the barbaric torturing and killing that was then ravaging Russia in the name of religion or unadorned greed. The climax of that part of the story is the long, nightmarish pillaging of the town of Vladimir, after which Rublev vows never to paint or speak again. And if the Tatars and the religious fanatics aren’t bad enough, there’s famine and plague to contend with too.
By the end of this majestically powerful film, we don’t just understand the need for art. We feel it, as Tarkovsky applies Rublev’s icons and frescoes like a balm to our bleeding souls.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.