While Andrei Rublev was officially released in 1966, it was not unleased upon the world until one fateful night (at 4 AM, courtesy of Soviet censors) in May of 1969 at the Cannes film festival, and as that screening was one of the most important cinematic events of 1969, it seems entirely legitimate for the film to have a place in this short retrospective.
One of the truly epochal films, Andrei Rublev is oneiric and elliptical but also deeply physical, at once abstractly cosmic and bodily comic, heavenly and grounded, ethereally resplendent but possessed of a tough, pragmatic bodily consciousness that, for all its sublimity, means that driector Andrei Tarkovsky’s film never floats above the characters for long. For an art film of this vintage, Andrei Rublev is second only to The Seventh Seal in its orientation toward the unruly nature of bodies, toward an aesthetics not of tableaux studiously arranged but quasi-absurd fracas. Its prologue depicts a man furiously struggling with a hot air balloon, attempting to rise above the masses and the proto-Russian swamps out of which St. Petersburg famously rose up, and the entire texture of the film formally embodies his doomed, noble quest: desiring to rise above all, to see the totality of existence, only to be drawn back down by the seismic pull of a world that can only be properly appreciated, for Tarkovsky at least, from below.
Andrei Rublev is a breathtakingly broad canvas, less stringently Protestant than Bergman, less cynical than Antonioni, and perhaps more genuinely humanistic than any film ever released, attempting to encompass multitudes and defy perfection. It might be described as a series of transmutations of a question – what is the relationship between the individual, society, and God – and the film absolutely takes seriously both the grandeur of that question and its polyphonous diffuseness, not treating it as a linear projection to be “answered” so much as a broad canvas on which to meditate and consider various aspects of human identity in tandem.
Rublev certainly isn’t uncontaminated by the desire of the self to transcend the confines of that self. But Tarkovsky animates this question not out of a myopic conception of transcendence as escape from an earthly realm or, contrarily, a cynical dismissive of the same desire. His non-totalizing portraiture considers transcendence not as a higher, “ennobled” plane of abstract existence but as a continuous and constantly self-questioning attempt at reckoning with the dawning awareness of one’s own personal humility amidst the chaos of the world. Unlike Bergman or Bresson, his film doesn’t specifically consider the life of the individual mind so much as the consternation and the jouissance of multiple perspectives in contestation and commiseration, of the building of a public that defies clear-cut solutions or morals. There’s no central takeaway to Andrei Rublev, although it isn’t naïve enough to refuse its own capacity to make decisions and favor certain characters. It thinks through the moral implications of its vision without tendentiously mapping out the morality or annotating for us who is good and who is bad.
After the prologue, Rublev introduces us to three wandering monks – Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), Daniil (Nikolai Grinko), and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) – en route to Moscow, their personalities sketched with an almost imperceptibly fine grain and in a thoroughly inductive manner. Tarkovsky never annotates their backstories, which might transform them into mere humans. I say “mere” because the film obviously aspires to much more than humanization, its characters enveloping universal archetypes, icons one might say, in the mode of Rublev’s famous icon paintings. But they are still people, tactile and earthy and sweaty and contemplative and wavering, in addition to all the wandering and wondering Tarkovsky asks of them throughout the film. Rublev, the nominal protagonist, is both much more and much less than a “character in a drama” whose psychology either activates or reacts to the events of the narrative, and who the film treats as its “goal” to extrapolate or explain. Rublev’s identity has no essence we “pick up” on through narrative event, no foundational past event that defines who he is today and thereby rescinds the more difficult, more rewarding task of actually exploring how Rublev sees the world, what he sees, and what it means to see. He’s an enormously particular protagonist, granularly sketched, but there’s no sense that the goal of the film is for us to understand Andrei Rublev as a particular individual so much as for us to negotiate the geography of Russian existence that allows for his existence writ large, all while understanding that such an attempt is valuable as an attempt, not a solution. In a sense, Tarkovsky’s film animates the tension caused by rendering people both as ideological and imaginative “types” and as pulsating, unique individuals, ultimately suggesting that each contaminates the other, and that this impure interplay is essential to not only the moral fabric of art but the tortured weave of existence itself.
In a sense, Tarkovsky’s film stylistically embodies this very duality, so posed and pageant-like, obviously aspiring to abstract the world, to hold it in place in search of a moral reckoning, to place figures just so as to narrativize existence, only to recognize its own limits when, say, the rambunctious bodies on screen simply don’t conform, be it the jester whose appearance focuses the first of eight chapters (excepting he prologue and epilogue) or the young bell-caster who is the protagonist of the final and longest chapter. The dualities of Tarkovsky’s film – so thoroughly cosmic and yet entirely quotidian, focused on grand questions of faith and purpose yet almost exclusively drawing its attention to the minutiae of existence in Russia at the time, a style that might be described as historical pageant that makes a travesty of pageantry – also speak to the film’s riven but still hopeful soul. Tarkovsky’s film envelops but cannot be accurately described as an attempt either to cut through the fabric of history and realistically depict the objective truth of life at this time or, conversely, to abstract its characters as representative symbols out of which the film’s questions effuse.
Although typically contradictory, Andrei Rublev defiantly holds these opposing principles in suspension together, pinching tightly and never letting go. Set in the first fourth of the 15th century, the film loosely follows Rublev through various happenings in his life (some of which he does not even appear in) while he and others wrangle with the ambiguities of purpose and meaning. Many of these characters philosophize, albeit without the kind of formal logical constraints a discipline sometimes imposes on the thinker. The jester animates the earliest segment with a Medieval pageantry of bodily humor and playful existentialism, recalling Bergman’s The Seventh Seal’s clowns by exploring how we find our place in the world (how we fit in) via song and performance, how we perform our identities and can be summarily dismissed for performing too vibrantly or without sufficient discretion toward respecting the status quo. The final example, the bell-caster, explores human experience as a study in craft, working with one’s own hands to build and engineer existence rather than to philosophize it, a sequence which more readily suggests Bresson’s emphasis on doing as thinking.
Both aforementioned figures, quite like the film, can’t just be custodians of history; the can’t tidily (or even chaotically) “explain” the birth of Russia as a series of events which causally link to one another. Instead, in its various figurations of pain, guilt, desire, and the ability to transfigure reality and represent divine or essential truths in art, the film refuses to accept that acknowledging the particular realities of Russian existence at this time divorce it from wider transcendent projects of human meaning-making. The characters may live, breathe, and act in highly particular ways, alternate to others and different from other time periods, and, above all, they may ask questions in different forms and with different inflections. But Rublev absolutely believes that there is a legitimate way to compare worlds and epochs, if not to establish them as fully commensurable.
And Rublev absolutely believes in the historical value of ostensibly grand questions abstracted from the dirt of reality. Andrei and the other figures who appear in Rublev have cosmologies, and their relative poverty in no way precludes them from wrestling with questions that aspire toward the Universal, a U which Tarkovsky (unlike some post-modern filmmakers of his era) seems particularly unashamed of. He, like the Andrei who titles the film, aspires to that which certainly cannot be realized (a Totality, a singular sense of Humanity) but still, particularly in the film’s final, unmatched segment, takes seriously the process of that realization – and perhaps a tempered belief in legitimately representing Truth, Divinity, and Life with capital letters – not as some banalized vacation of the innocent or naive but as part of the adventure of life itself. Such questions seriously wrack the human brain, and in wrestling with them, in being unafraid to plunge into the murkiest waters of the soul for answers to questions that are definitionally unanswerable – we may figure out a way to get through it. Tarkovsky’s cosmology is uncynical about such Idealism. It is skeptical of eternal Truths but still stands in awe of them, and the power they hold on society and those who ponder them.
Tarkovsky’s film does not take this aspiration lightly; indeed, Tarkovsky’s work is defined by how it renders the process of realizing the Total not as simple, clean cartography but as a “tortured geography” (to cop from a noted theorist in another region entirely, although one dealing with inextricably similar questions). Perhaps for this reason, although the film clearly reveres the icons Rublev painted himself in its gloriously transcendent epilogue – glorious color wrenched out of a ravaged, black-and-white existence – the icons are essentially withheld from the narrative itself. For Tarkovsky, it seems, it isn’t actually the icons themselves that matter, but the process of realizing them, and the questions embedded in that process. The icons are serene; reality is brutal, contingent, and disturbed, and Rublev bears testament to this. Tarkovsky’s film evidences a deep, spiritual desire to harmonize existence, but an abiding skepticism about whether this is possible, and more importantly what the contours of such a phrase even implies, or what measurements might not ultimately be sacrilegious in the face of such an insurmountable task. The film’s famous invasion sequence certainly doesn’t make the case that national unity in the form of imperial conquest is any meaningful form of harmony. Likewise, Christianity animates the film – and it certainly can’t but suggest that Rublev and his icons are of paramount importance to what would become Russian identity – but they – in their specific, historical forms – are not the essence of Tarkovsky’s vision.
Rather, Tarkovsky is more abstractly interested in humanity’s relationship to the unknown. His whole film is encroached upon by an aura of the unfathomable, refusing to be a mere “window into heaven” that grants us a clear vision of a better world. Rather, the film, like the soul, must stick to our world, and to the polyphonic, divergent episodes of those who aspire to make sense of it through art, to reach beyond it unseeingly, much as this film does along the way to realizing that no one figure’s transcendental vision is truly transcendent on its own. This may be another reason why Tarkovsky doesn’t actually narrativize the process of Rublev painting his icons. Not content to rest on allusions, Rublev refuses to displace its own cinematic test to the realm of the painterly. Rather than having Rublev’s painting perform the work the film has set out to – to serve as the “vessels” for what the film wants to get at – Tarkovsky’s film understands what most great films do, that it can only seriously consider the role of art for life by formally embodying – cinematically – the tensions and questions which the artists who center the film must ask of themselves. The film doesn’t ultimately value its titular character because he has cracked the mystery of God, but because he observes, because he is a witness to history and takes on the insurmountable task of divining it, whether he succeeds or not. Thematically, Andrei Rublev explores this duality not only in content but in form, visualizing a dismal reality and artists who spiritually contest and try to encapsulate it, like the dreaming balloonist who opens the film, and whose spirit seems to drive it.
For Tarkovsky, none of these questions, perhaps even in their more all-encompassing, totalizing, capitalzed formulations, are worthless endeavors, or even foolish ones (he is not, then, a post-modernist). It can only be for this reason that, although the style of Tarkovsky’s film is so minutely observed and thoroughly deflating to any Historical Totality – it offers no “narrative” of Russian history, but merely a set of interrelated themes to consider – it does, in practice, speak to History. Thus, when his characters function both as universalist icons and highly particularized people, both grubbily confronting specific realities painstakingly realized as a living and breathing personal experience and capable of carrying questions associatively linked to concerns far more abstract than the experience of their lives, Tarkovsky refuses to hold the abstract and the concrete in any mutually exclusive binary. It is because abstractions (the desire to know History, etc) rise out of particular experiences in the world that they have value for Tarkovsky, and because one wrestles with abstract Truths out of decidedly concrete truths that art wrenches meaning out of and because of the vagaries of reality.
In the truly stupendous bell-casting sequence, the camera in one shot follows young Boriska – supposedly entrusted with his father’s secret blueprint for casting a bell – pulling tree roots out of the ground. The camera eventually rising at the base of the tree that the roots have led him to, it then cuts to close in on his face as it rises up into the sky, his desire to overcome adversity and achieve a spiritual balance with his perceived purpose in the world levitating the film far off the ground, above him but not beyond the reach of his mind. Tying metaphysical speculation with earthly manipulation, the desire to transcend effuses the entire film, but the film focuses not on intense and insular personal but a rapidly growing community of participants who slowly take on as much weight and import as Boriska. He switches, like Andrei Rublev, from agent to observer, witness to history being enacted not because he drives it but because he ponders it. As with the balloonist, the film bears witness to fugue of dreamlike ethereality and composure punctured by unerringly human disturbance, as though the film is both casting itself adrift into the ether and thoroughly skeptical of escaping into the stratosphere and abandoning humanity. Many of Rublev’s paradigmatic features speak to a messier approach to cinema that most of Tarkovsky’s imitators forego. Two bear mention: first, a more open frame where characters seem to move in and out at their whimsy, not entirely directed by a cinematic puppeteer, and second, a less sculpted lighting style more focused on pondering the expanse of the entire frame than drawing our attention to noteworthy elements of the drama (as many American films tend to). This also reveals a less transcendent Tarkovsky, one who is not undivided about the nature of reality, but who weighs seriously the prospect of not contemplating abstractions of Truth and commits unhesitantly to a life of artful reflection nonetheless, hoping that doing so via the specificities of open reflection and the consideration of multiple, non-directed perspectives will ultimately lead to a more humane consciousness.
Some have accused many of the most famous beacons of ‘60s art cinema as essentially condescending and, worse, myopically standoffish, totally unwilling to engage with the complications of a world viewed as essentially and fundamentally inhospitable to humanity. In this view, film is totally evacuated of any of its incantatory powers, bereft of any ability to conjure another vision of existence, or even to seriously view our own world. Art can only be lesser than, defined only by its limits and its ability to acknowledge those limits and its endlessly reflexive perspectival mediation; cinema’s only true ability becomes to question the capacity of itself, and art vicariously, to do anything except demarcate its own bounds. Instead of exploring pain, punishment, and death, ‘60s cinema becomes its own pallbearer, lowering the art form into its grave.
The view that such post-modern cinema is thoroughly insular and totally divorced from the world is fallacious at best. (Partially this is because the view denies the ways in which post-modern cinema consecrated earlier modernist cinema, particularly American cinema, as legitimately interrogative and doubtful rather than hopelessly innocent and naively beholden to classical ideals). But, even for those who are weary of, say, Godard, Rublev is a totally different beast entirely, no less brutally bruised and no less judicious in the way it ponders cinema’s representational capacity or its theoretical quotient. Ultimately though – forged by the fires of introspection and self-doubt – if Rublev questions any and all artistic grandeur and monolithic-ness, any aspirations to represent, it argues that art’s essential importance for humanity – perhaps humanity’s central gift to itself – is to attempt such a leap anyway, knowing full well the consequences of that leap.
Far from a transhumanist lament, then, Andrei Rublev instead evokes the mortal tension of specificity scraping against the limits of universality. Tarkovsky’s Soviet mysticism, his virulent spirituality, was rendered an occult knowledge in the atheistic Soviet Union, with its pretensions toward a total moral vista dropping down and protecting the Soviet people like a force field. Tarkovsky also understood this force field as a veil though, an ocular distortion that occluded certain truths, truths hidden not only by Soviet society by Western society’s mechanical and capitalistic vision of an efficient modernity and a market which colonizes and controls all thought. In response, Tarkovsky’s film reverberates outward with the spirit of a man on the search for transcendence, lifting the veil – or, realizing that it cannot easily be uprooted, traveling through it to the unknown – in search of a more humanist apex of modernity, a universal truth rooted not in the abstract totalizing principles of Soviet and Western society but the particularities of consciousness which can never be completely commandeered by the abstractions which nonetheless drive and frame them. It offers a travesty of the possibility of transcendence, only to recover transcendence out of travesty, not in the form of philosophical introspection as a set of conclusions or solutions but as a proposition to maintain a contemplative, questioning, curious posture in all human doings.