May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 8, 2009
I’ll never paint again. Because it’s of no use to anyone. That’s all.
This film doesn’t pander. It barely accommodates. You can watch for an hour, you might even make it all the way to the end, without being entirely sure which of the grim Russian monks is the title character. They look all alike, and names are rarely spoken.
In the opening sequence, a mob tries to prevent a man from taking flight in a hot air balloon made of animal skins. He soars headlong over land and water, experiencing a view of the world unavailable to the violent crowd left behind him on the ground. A dizzying, perhaps disastrous, descent to the earth. Then in slow motion, a horse rolls on its back, gets to its feet and walks past the deflating balloon. What this incident has to do with the rest of the film is never explained. It might or might not become clear on second or third viewing.
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966) might be considered the Mount Everest of spiritual film. It is intimidating, imposing, remote, yet sooner or later every cinephile with an interest in exploring the furthest reaches of faith and art will mount an inevitable expedition. For those who persevere, the film yields an extraordinary perspective on the world below.
The director’s quasi-autobiographical film conveys the near impossibility and apparent futility of the artist’s task in the face of suffering and upheaval. Overwhelmed by and even implicated in the horrific violence of Tartar invasions and ongoing bloody clashes between warring Russian princes – the protracted birth pains of modern Russia – the nation’s greatest artist struggles with the legitimacy of his work, questioning whether art-making could possibly server the glory of God in such circumstances.
Andrei Tarkovsky was himself a Christian, and it is easy to read the film as the testimony (protest?) of an artist believer under the repressive Soviet regime of the early 1960s. Its subtitle suggests his personal identification with the travails of the great Russian iconographer, and may explain why the film was shown only briefly in Moscow in 1966 before being shelved for three years. A single covert out-of-competition screening at the Cannes Festival introduced this austere, obscure masterpiece to the world, and its mystique grew until bemused London audiences were finally able to view a 140 minute cut in 1973. They assumed that this elliptical pageant, moving almost at random through a quarter century of medieval Russian history in a series of barely connected scenarios of brutal violence and obscure theologizing, interrupted by sudden and unannounced fantasy sequences, must have been rendered unintelligible by Soviet censors.
Such challenges did not originate with the bureaucrats. Far more complete versions screened in the ensuing three and a half decades, each successive release only adding to the film’s narrative and thematic challenges. Tarkovsky’s subsequent films all confirm the artist’s lack of interest in conventional narrative and his unwillingness to diminish the mysterious complexities of the images he places on screen. Indeed it might be said that his central preoccupation is Mystery, that he fiercely resists any steps toward simplification or clarity that might diminish his ability to evoke that quality on film. In his aesthetic manifesto Sculpting In Time, Tarkovsky himself writes that his masterpiece “strikes me as disjointed and incoherent”: he calls it “a complete mystery, the riddle of my life.”
It was only during my second viewing that I started even to appreciate this daunting, opaque film. It took a third time through (with two friends who had never met, each of whom counted this their uncontested favorite film) to begin actually to like it. But it was only after working my way through the film scene-by-scene, followed a fifth complete viewing, that the power ofAndrei Rublev truly took hold of me, and I came to share my friends’ enthusiasm. I can’t understand why the film didn’t speak to me when first I encountered it, it lives so close to the central concerns of my life. In all its mystery and concreteness, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece has become essential to my faith, speaking as no other film does to my understanding of the place of my art in the world, and in the kingdom of God. And in no way that I can express in words, it reassures and strengthens my resolve to face the inevitability of suffering that comes to every human life.
It has been worth so so long and challenging a climb. So difficult a flight. When you get up high enough, there’s a lot you can see.
Andrei Rublev is being shown as part of the “Revisiting Tarkovsky” retrospective now in progress at Lincoln Centre