Tarkovsky’s vignette-style medieval epic is possibly the greatest ideological film about a psychologically-conflicted artist trying to understand the epoch he lives in.
Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
1966 | Soviet Union | Biography/Drama | 183 mins | 2.35:1 | Russian Italian & Tartar
NC16 (passed clean) for some nudity
Cast: Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolay Grinko
Plot: The life, times and afflictions of the 15th century Russian iconographer St. Andrei Rublev.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate/Philosophical
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Andrei Rublev might be the most ambitious work by Andrei Tarkovsky, who was only in his early thirties when he made the film. Despite being a sophomore feature, it is probably his greatest accomplishment as well.
My personal favourite of his is still Solaris (1972), but this comes as a close second. In this 183-minute cut which Tarkovsky would later endorse (the original was 205-minute long), he creates a medieval epic about a famous Russian religious icon painter from the 15th century.
Andrei Rublev is as much about the titular artist as it is a rich depiction of a bygone epoch, filled with strange encounters and startling experiences, both physically and psychologically.
Told in a vignette style, each segment of the film chronicles a part of Rublev’s life as he journeys across the beautiful if harsh landscape, and meeting all sorts of people from humble peasants to naked pagans to sadistic warmongers.
Three specific segments left me increasingly astonished—‘The Holiday’ (naked lovemaking pagans who question Rublev’s desires for the flesh), ‘The Raid’ (the Tartars’ brutal invasion of a Russian city), and ‘The Bell’ (detailing the painstaking process of bell-casting).
“In much wisdom there is much grief. And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
There are five other episodes, plus a prologue and epilogue that contribute to how we might understand a psychologically-conflicted artist trying to make sense of the times he is living in.
Spanning nearly two decades, the film sees Tarkovsky capturing these moments with the visual poetry and complex themes that he has long been associated with.
With the freedom to alternate between a freewheeling style where he explores the seemingly limitless boundaries of cinema (e.g. stunning aerial shots, tracking shots, abstract images, etc.) and a more narrative-focused approach that provides some semblance of shape and structure to the film, Tarkovsky has made what could possibly be the greatest ideological film of all-time:
A religious epic that is not so much about religion as it is spirituality;
A biopic that is not so much about the subject as it is his milieu;
And a historical film that is not so much about history as it is a sense of time when symbolism mattered.