Andrei Rublev (15.)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring Anatoli Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev, Irma Raush, Nikolai Burlyayev. 183 mins. A new digitally restored print, out on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand from Curzon Artificial Eye.
Andrei Rublev is a three hour, black and white, Russian film about a 15th century icon painter, made half a century ago. I'm going to tell you that this is one of the greatest films ever made and you're going to read this and think that you don't care what I, or Richard Linklater, or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, or the Sight and Sound Asleep Hot 100 list say: how can a three hour, black and white, Russian film about a 15th century icon painter be one of the all time greats?
I have two answers.
Firstly: it just is. There is something utterly inexplicable about the film. The subject is so defiantly difficult, it's approach so contrary, yet it works. And not just with film nerds; Real People like it too.
Secondly: although it may look like a ponderous, slow moving art film, where people discuss weighty issues about the value of art, integrity, religion and Russia suffering, the structure of the film is made up of a series of set pieces. Like Hollywood films it is only interested in “the good bits.” Little is known about Rublev's life so Tarkovsky's script (written with Andrey Konchalovsky, who would go on to direct Tango and Cash) is free to invent and make up all kinds of stunning set pieces. The film starts with a flying sequences in a hot air balloon that bears no relationship to the main story and goes on to include a midsummer pagan orgy, a brutal battle sequence (caution contains animal cruelty) and an epic sequence where a bell is cast. So it may be long and slow, but there is precious little slack in Rublev.
The film drops in on the artist at various points between 1400 and 1424. We start out with Rublev (Solonitsyn) and his two associates Kirill (Lapikov) and Danilo (Grinko) on their way to Moscow to do a job. Over the following 24 years these figures wonder around the savage barbarity of 15th century Russian life, where the peasants are constantly vulnerable to the whims of their masters or the threat of a Tartar invasion. Rublev is like a Christ figure wandering through a brutal, Godless world and wondering what value his art and his faith have in this place. In subsequent films Tarkovsky would become increasingly ethereal and detached from situations, but here he is right down in the mud and the blood and the squalor.
Tarkovsky's second film is a monumental leap forward from his debut Ivan's Childhood. That was a great film but great in the standard way; Rublev is vast and bold and challenging, Tarkovsky's long tracking shots weave mesmerizingly through the terrain and his compositions are just staggeringly beautiful. It's not quite the dreamy poetic Tarkovsky of his other films, maybe because of the black and white and maybe because the film has a rigid structure and making those set pieces kept him honest, stopped him indulging himself in dream imagery. It's in the convention of epic film making, not so far from what Lean, Kubrick or Coppola might have done.
Sitting down to watch its three hours feels like a mighty undertaking but it pulls you into it vision. There's a momentum to it, a cumulative power and by the last half hour you may feel a sense of euphoria, both in the sense of having made it all the way through and then finding it has thrilled you. After the film had finished I felt a strong urge to sit down and watch it all again.
A little disappointing. The Ivan's Childhood disc has three substantial interviews but here we just get two very brief snippets with Mrs Tarkovsky and actor Yuriy Nazarov, a Making Of that is just a few minutes of footage shot on the set. We also have part two of Mary Wild's on going psycho analysis of Tarkovsky's work.