I regard Andrei Rublev as the “film of films.” I’ve seen, and own copies of, all seven of Tarkovsky’s feature-length films. Of course, all seven are strikingly original and memorable, but I think that in Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky has created an inexhaustible source of wonder that deserves to be placed a bit higher than his other works. It will still be watched five hundred or a thousand years from now because one could talk about the film from now until then, and still not say all there is to say about it.
I think Andrei Rublev is above all about vision. It’s about developing the kind of vision that is needed to paint something as marvelous as the Trinity icon, when all around you life and beauty seem inextricably mixed with death and destruction.
I love the shot of the shirtless jester standing outside the hut in the rain. This occurs near the beginning of the movie, just after the three monks (Kirill, Danil, and Andrei) have left Trinity Monastery, against the abbot’s wishes. And right away, we see the critical difference between Andrei and his fellow monks: Kirill, offended by the jester’s impiety, stealthily leaves the hut in order to “turn in” the jester to some nearby guards; Danil puts his nose in a book he has brought with him, and promptly dozes off; only Andrei truly sees what is going on around him in the hut, only Andrei takes in the humanity there, and only Andrei sees the jester standing there half-naked in the rain. For me, this view of the jester calls to mind these words by Shakespeare from King Lear:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
It marks the beginning of Andrei’s development in seeing.
Tarkovsky’s nontraditional approach to film narrative can be unsettling and off-putting until you get used to it. In Andrei Rublev we don’t even know which monk is the main character until a good ways into the movie. Throughout the film, subsidiary characters like Kirill, Foma, the “Lesser” Prince, and Boriska cycle to the forefront, providing alternate points of view in the narrative. But Andrei is always around, always observing, and by the end of the movie there’s no question but that his character is the thread that connects everything.
Here is the arc of the narrative, as I see it (caution: spoilers ahead):
The ascetic severity of Byzantine spirituality is certainly an integral part of the film (and it probably helps to understand the historical and theological context for it), but I think it’s clear that Andrei himself is consistently at odds with it. He argues with his mentor, Theophanes the Greek, when the latter rails against the stupidity and baseness of the Russian people and declares “We’ll burn like candles.” He frustrates his friend and fellow monk-painter, Danil, by agonizing over their commission to paint a fresco of the Last Judgment, because he can’t figure out how do it without the usual terrifying images. Even though Andrei has witnessed horrifying cruelty, like the Grand Prince’s blinding of the stone masons, he can’t bring himself to accept the “black” Byzantine view of things. There is a tenderness in his heart that is simply incompatible with it.
At a crucial moment near the middle of the film, in the midst of his painter’s block over the Last Judgment, and which also corresponds to the arrival of the “holy fool,” Andrei remembers how he, Kirill, and Danil sheltered from the rain by standing under a young oak tree in the middle of a field (I discussed this sequence in a prior post). Emerging from his reverie, Andrei confidently states that she (the holy fool) is not a sinner, even if she doesn’t keep her head covered (Sergei, one of Andrei’s assistants, had been reading from I Corinthians). And then Andrei declares that his Last Judgment will depict a feast!
But Andrei’s development suffers a grievous setback, in the terrible raid by the Mongol-Tatars on the town of Vladimir. In defense of the holy fool, Andrei kills a man. Mortified by his own act, and horrified by the death and destruction of the raid, as well as the treachery of the “Lesser” Prince that abetted it, he declares his intention to never paint again, before lapsing into a vow of silence. Years pass. It seems that Andrei will take his prodigious talent to the grave without producing any more works of art. Then, after years in the secular world, Kirill returns to Andronikov Monastery, where Andrei is, and he begs Andrei to “paint, paint, paint” (the Russian word for it sounds better). Andrei appears to be unmoved, but in the final episode of the film, when Andrei sees the bellfounder’s son, Boriska, create the magnificent bell, he speaks again and vows to paint icons again. And then we get to see Andrei Rublev’s glorious icons – the centerpiece being the Trinity icon – in the film’s epilogue.
Something else I want to mention, that is not apparent without some study of the historical context, is that at this late date we can know very little about the specifics of Andrei Rublev’s life, or what he thought – these things simply weren’t recorded. Tarkovsky was therefore free, in effect, to “invent” the details of Rublev’s life. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could have been license for rank melodrama or patriotic puffery, especially given the (Soviet) film system that Tarkovsky was working within. But no, here we have one supreme artist who is able to brilliantly intuit, across the centuries, the mind of another supreme artist. It is not a question of whether the details of Rublev’s life are accurate in some strict historical sense (without a record, how can we know?). What matters is whether the details, as portrayed in the film, are true to the shaping intuition or vision, and whether this vision is commensurate with the only historical residue that Rublev has left us – his matchless icons. I believe that Tarkovsky’s portrayal and vision of the life of Rublev fully measures up on both counts.
In a general historical sense, the “pagan holiday” episode has rightly been faulted as anachronistic. Historians tell us that pagan enclaves like the one depicted by Tarkovsky are extremely unlikely in fifteenth-century Russia. But I think that including this episode was a stroke of genius, and bespeaks the deeply rooted conflict in Rublev’s soul (and, I would argue, in Tarkovsky’s too) between choosing an ascetic, world-denying path, and a bounteous, world-affirming path. Despite what I said before, about Rublev being at odds with “black” Byzantine spirituality, it’s important to remember that he always remained – sometimes more, sometimes less – within the tradition. In my view, his masterpiece, the Trinity icon, is his eloquent attempt to reform it. Working within an incredibly prescribed art form (icon painting) Rublev has achieved, in the Trinity icon, the seemingly impossible. He has created something completely new, yet completely recognizable as belonging to the thousand-year-old tradition. Rublev has chosen the world-affirming path, yet has not rejected the other path. This may appear to be an intolerable paradox for those who worship logic. But for those who worship the living God, all things are possible, even “illogical” things. The Last Judgment is a feast (or holiday)!
Marfa, the pagan temptress of Andrei, says something very important to him, in terms of his development in seeing. When Andrei tries to tell her that there is carnal love and then there is brotherly love (i.e. that they are different things), she gently reproves him, “Isn’t all love the same? It’s just love.” Marfa’s words recall for me the profound and beautiful essay on love, written in the form of a letter, by Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580 – 662). It is significant, in this context, that besides being the greatest of the Byzantine theologians, the one who “got it all right” in the words of one modern interpreter, Maximus is also the most world-affirming one (while remaining an ascetic monk!). He is an important “subterranean” influence behind the Russian religious philosophers of the Silver Age (roughly 1890 to 1917) who were so important in the formation of Tarkovsky’s worldview. Here is the part of Maximus’ letter, “On Love,” that Marfa’s words bring to mind:
Love is therefore a great good, and of goods the first and most excellent good, since through it God and man are drawn together in a single embrace, and the creator of humankind appears as human, through the undeviating likeness of the deified to God in the good so far as is possible to humankind. And the interpretation of love is: to love the Lord God with all the heart and soul and power, and the neighbor as oneself. Which is, if I might express it in a definition, the inward universal relationship to the first good connected with the universal purpose of our natural kind. Other than this there is nothing that can make the human being who loves God ascend any higher, for all other ways of true religion are subordinate to it. This we know as love and so we call it, not divisively assigning one form of love to God and another to human beings, for it is one and the same and universal: owed to God and attaching human beings one to another.
It’s been said by some that Andrei Rublev is “very abstract.” In a certain sense this is true. When I hear the phrase “very abstract,” I tend to think of certain films by Stan Brakhage, for example (some have seen a resemblance between Brakhage and Tarkovsky – it’s well worth it to find and read the hilarious account by Brakhage of their meeting). The whole abstract versus figurative debate in art is probably an endless one, and there’s obviously overlap. I guess my own, perhaps simple-minded, barometer is that if I’m looking at an artistic image, and what’s being portrayed isn’t recognizable as a particular “something” straight away, then I’d consider it abstract. And here I’m talking about on an immediate, visceral level; meaning operates on a slower, more constructed level. I rarely have the sense while watching a Tarkovsky film that I’m seeing abstract images, in the sense that I’m using the word here. (An exception might be the images in Solaris of Solaris itself.) Rather like how a religious icon is supposed to function in the mind and heart of a believer, i.e. as a window into the transcendent, Tarkovsky’s images draw the viewer into, and through, the literal object(s) in the frame into other, “higher” planes. But I use scare quotes around the word higher, because I don’t think that Tarkovsky means for us to take the objects he portrays to be simply containers of spiritual content, to be discarded as empty husks once their marrow has been consumed (the way I sometimes feel to be the case in Bresson’s films, for example).
Finally, here’s a viewing tip. I may be in the minority with this opinion, but if circumstances permit it, I think it’s better not to watch Andrei Rublev for the first time all in one sitting. I’d recommend watching about half of it, and then taking a break, before watching the rest of it. In fact, after having seen it now multiple times, I usually watch no more than one or two episodes (out of the seven total, not counting the prologue and the epilogue) at a time. The episodic structure lends itself well to this.
I’ve gotten a tremendous lot out of experiencing Tarkovsky’s films, and thinking about them, and I believe many other people could too, if only they would try them. I suppose most of us who feel this way about Tarkovsky have this desire to spread the word about him. Yes, he’s not “easy.” Yes, his films are “slow.” But worthwhile things usually do take effort and time. Life’s not all skittles and beer . . .