When Andrei Tarkovsky unveiled Andrei Rublev in 1966 for its mandated pre-release screening, Soviet censors balked.
Goskino, the state committee for cinematography, was demurred by the film’s length, its pervasive truculence, and its surfeit of unvarnished nudity. They could not make heads or tails of Tarkovsky’s wooly, tempestuous epic about Russia’s premier icon painter, steeped as it was in mosaic historicisms and unhinged Orthodox mysticism.
The film was too oblique to be a political incendiary, but it was revolutionary in another way. Unmoored from the legacy of Kino demi-god Sergei Eisenstein’s mechanical montage technique, Tarkovsky engineered his own cinematic vogue. No matter the subject, almost all of his works were mired in emotive abstractions, earthy resplendence,and a sublime ability to revivify the past.
While undoubtedly puzzling and obscurant, Andrei Rublev is also the best, most dynamic film to emerge from the Soviet Union.
A biopic only in the loosest sense of the word, Tarkovsky envisions Andrei Rublev’s story as a picaresque narrative of the artistic plight. Bookended by two tangential subplots (first the short sketch of a crash and burn inventor, later the exploits of a nascent, bell-casting prodigy), the rest of the film is a fragmentary medieval fever dream.
Tarkovsky reproduces a centrifuge of fastidious period detail — warfare on horseback, ornate architecture, occult rituals, draconian executions as public entertainment — and shoves Andrei Rublev right in the middle. Weathering a series of personal and political vicissitudes, Rublev pledges himself to several monasteries, refuses commissions out of vehement religious angst and eventually takes a vow of silence to amend for his sins and protest life’s ubiquitous cruelty.
While Andrei Rublev undoubtedly chronicles the creative process, the titular painter is never actually shown practicing his craft. Instead, the film spans the 20 fraught years it took Rublev to navigate his own crises of conscience and Russia’s violent, paranoiac political environment.
For Tarkovsky, himself languishing under the oppressive Soviet regime, the artist is no divinely ordained genius but the expressive outlet of a particular zeitgeist. By the same token, the director, with a certain degree of irony, elevates the standing of his profession to that of both aesthetic and ascetic maestro.
To bolster his point, he implicates Rublev in his own Passion: one of venerating close-ups and sacrilegious fantasias. When a Byzantine chapel is torched by Tatars, the graybeard apparition of Rubev’s mentor, Theosophanas, manifests to share the grief and talk shop. In another, less subtle scene, the painter evokes a snowbound reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion with himself in the headlining role. The non sequiturs are at times indulgent, yet in its picturesque maundering, Rublev manages to be simultaneously off-color, beautiful and highly subversive.
Tarkovsky’s effusive, emancipated visual style, however, is the film’s lynchpin. Rendered in chimerical black and white, each individual shot is a lavish, self-contained production: beatific while the onscreen action is often brutal.
The film opens with a harried inventor preparing to test his newly conceived, ramshackle hot air balloon. As enraged fundamentalists arrive to pummel his assistants, the inventor, his balloon and the shot launch into a euphoric flyby of the barren Russian landscape before once again falling to earth. Near the film’s conclusion, one astral long take begins with the camera lolling before throngs of jabbering peasants, then pulls up and back and terminates hanging, perpendicular above a royal-commissioned bell, ready for its first tolling. The technical freedom on display is curiously exultant. Even slow motion passages of warriors brutalizing horses and asbestos cascading from the sky appear to unfold in a gorgeous, meditative reverie.
Now widely canonized as a masterpiece, Andrei Rublev spent five years in bowdlerizing limbo before its 1971 Soviet premiere. By then, it had been largely truncated, sustaining heavy cuts and an ideological reprimand from the powers that be. But through the support of Tarkovsky’s avant garde compatriots—among them composer Dmitry Shostakovich and fellow filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev—Andrei Rublev found an audience. Although primarily a testament to Tarkovsky’s cinematic acumen, no other film may have done as much to unsettle and disrupt Kremlin omnipotence. It didn’t topple the government or end the Cold War, but like the real Andrei Rublev, it met history head on and, in the end, came out largely intact.