Ranking: #47/111

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky (Russia)

Genre: Historical Drama

It’s fitting that both the artist who is the subject of the film and the film’s director are called Andrei, because there seems to be a deep affinity between these two Russian artists, both heavily influenced by Christian spirituality. Both strive for a mystical purity in their work and both see Christianity as fundamental to Russian identity. Back in the 1960s, Tarkovsky suffered in cultural isolation over many years to try to inject his unique brand of spirituality and mysticism into the tightly controlled Soviet film industry. He projects a lot of this Cold War spiritual loneliness and suffering into his interpretation of Andrei Rublev’s life.

Andrei Rublev (or Andrey Rublyov) (c.1360-1430) is Russia’s most revered painter of Byzantine style religious icons and frescoes. Not a lot is known about the medieval painter. In 1405, he decorated icons and frescos for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. His most famous icon is The Trinity, or The Hospitality of Abraham, which shows three angels visiting Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (described in Genesis 18:1-8). It is commonly seen as a symbolic of the Holy Trinity. It’s a beautifully harmonious and peaceful Biblical scene.

In 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church canonised Rublev, two decades after Andrei Tarkovsky made his film about the artist’s life.

I experience this film as a unique treasure of Russian art, as a call of the heart for the country to return to its spiritual roots, as an unsentimental tribute to a medieval artist who influenced a 20th century creator of film art. For Tarkovsky’s cinematic style is highly visual, first and foremost, as if film images can be today’s equivalent of religious frescoes and icons.

The film is shot in black-and-white (although the palette is predominantly grey, rather than using sharply contrasting blacks and whites) and it is only at the end that some of Rublev’s beautiful works are shown in colour. The colour shots of the works contrast their sublime nature with the sordid life and times we’ve witnessed in the black-and-white imagery of the story.

Tarkovsky has always possessed a rich aesthetic sense and his films unashamedly set out to create cinematic beauty, while conveying spiritual truths embedded in the textures of the story. For example, the images of the four horses in the rain at the end are beautiful and somewhat obscure – are they the four horses of the apocalypse or just a symbol of an idyllic pastoral life in a pristine Russia of the imagination? Tarkovsky’s cinema is always poetic, speaking to the imagination, more than to logic: “Because I was an artist I thought in images,” he once stated (Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p.244).

He was clear about the aim of his film: “I wanted to investigate the nature of the poetic genius of the greater Russian painter.”(Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p. 34)  He was most interested in the “psychology of artistic creativity”.

Another connection between Rublev and Tarkovsky is that they each operated at a time of turbulence in their country, the former during the terrible Mongol-Tartar invasions and civil disturbances and divisions and the latter during the Cold War. “The film was to show how the national yearning for brotherhood, at a time of vicious internecine fighting and the Tartar yoke, gave birth to Rublyov’s inspired ‘Trinity’ – epitomising the ideal of brotherhood, love and quiet sanctity,” Tarkovsky explained. (Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p.34). Both artists felt the suffering of their country during times of oppression and division and both believed there could be reconciliation through spirituality and through art.

But the film Andrei Rublev is far from being airy-fairy, or other-worldly. It’s not just a poetically filmed tribute to a great medieval artist. No, the textured mise-en-scène stunningly recreates the roughness of life in these turbulent times: “One of the aims…was to reconstruct for a modern audience the real world of the fifteenth century,” Tarkovsky said, emphasising the truth of direct observation, or “physiological truth” (Tarkovsky, A, 1986. Sculpting in Time – Reflections on the Cinema, p.78).

When Rublev leaves the monastery as a young, naïve man in the first part of the film, he is unprepared for the bewildering world he encounters. The way people live seems so far removed from the spiritual ideals he was taught in the monastery. Many live as pagans seemingly untouched by true spirituality.

Then comes the graphic depiction of an attack by the Mongol-Tartars, in which many Russians are killed, assaulted or enslaved. This is a heart-rending sequence in the movie which forces him to undergo a spiritual crisis of sorts. The film shows him becoming one with the suffering of his people, undergoing different worldly experiences.

Only later does he come back to the values he was once taught at the monastery, namely, love, goodness and brotherhood. But these are now lived values. They are values which have survived the onslaught of several experiences of disillusionment and shock. “The crux of the question, however, is that the artist cannot express the moral ideal of his time unless he touches all its running sores, unless he suffers and lives these sores himself,” Tarkovsky wrote of this theme.

Rublev had taken a vow of silence after the shock of the Tartar massacre. There is a touching climax to the film, during the sequence of the building of the bell-tower, in which the painter finally breaks this vow. After the bell-tower has been built with great difficulty on deep foundations, there is uncertainty about whether the bell will sound as it should when it is rung. A young boy, who is the son of the deceased bell-maker, was not told by his father the secret of how the bell should work, or sound. When the bell rings for the first time, after the bell-tower has been consecrated, it sounds suitably sonorous. The distraught boy weeps with relief and Rublev comforts him, speaking for the first time to break his vow of silence. The aerial shots of the bell being rung for the first time are splendid.

Andrei Rublev is a deeply moving and meaningful film. It’s about the nature of art as it strives to keep a troubled world sane, ultimately directed towards the long-cherished ideals of beauty and harmony. It depicts an epic spiritual and historical drama in the director’s characteristic mystical style: “…the most characteristic element of Tarkovsky’s films…is the creation of a filmic world that has the power, mystery, ambiguity and essential reality of a dream.” (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 647)

Art, then, becomes part of the search for redemption from suffering in this movie. Tarkovsky is one of the most abstract filmmakers in film history, but once the viewer grasps his artistic vision and aims, the magic of this work of genius comes fully alive.