Andrei Tarkovsky: Andrei Rublev (1966) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Andrei Tarkovsky: Andrei Rublev (1966)

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"Простота без процветать."

Andrei Tarkovsky's follow-up to Ivan's Childhood is a biopic about the icon painter Andrei Rublev.  The movie takes place in several movements over the course of Rublev's (Anatoly Solonitsyn) life, from his simple wanderings for inspiration, to the violence and despair that led him to abandon his art.

RiseAndrewCommentaryBannerWatching Andrei Rublev, I was slowly getting the sense that the saint is an onscreen avatar for Tarkovsky, a sense that was further enhanced by the technique and events of the film.  It's incredibly contemplative in a way that embraces the physical realities of Rublev's world to the point where they become transcendent.  One shot sums this up incredibly well when milk is spilling into a stream.  The thick, wavy texture of the milk, enhanced by the black and white, slowly dissipates into the larger stream and becomes indistinguishable from the water.

We're constantly reminded of this physical reality but it's always in moments that place the limitations of existence into a larger framework.  I loved Andrei Rublev partly because it refused to give an answer for just what that structure is.  The film is a biopic of an artist that does not contain a single scene of him painting an icon.  Compare this to a film like Red Beard, which I do love, that's a collection of messages and lessons wrapped in the framework of two doctors living out their life in a country village.  Tarkovsky is trying to capture the essence of creative inspiration in the divine nature of existence here, which is a lot harder to do than present a tale with a moral at the end.

This is why my favorite images are the ones that feel like they're gently closing in on something so totally elusive and impossible to define.  There's that shot with the milk, but also the extended sequence where Rublev happens upon a parade of naked pagans on the eve of an orgy.  There's Rublev in his civilizing state with his robes and neatly trimmed beard, framed against the curling trees, while a seemingly endless wave of flesh comes from the distance to imprison and tempt him.  I didn't find anything in this scene directly reflected in that heavenly arrangement of color that shows off Rublev's iconographic work at the end, but that seems to be the point.  Tarkovsky takes the time to let us drink in each scene until it becomes tactile, and is in no rush to get to the next moment because inspiration doesn't have a checklist.

While I love the film, one aspect of Tarkovsky's reputation I had to come to terms with here is that he did long takes for the sake of long takes.  I understand how this came about, especially with the long raids that take place in the second half of the film.  There was a certain point where I felt that the emotional violation of the raid had well made its point but on the attack went.  Still, I didn't grow too impatient, and the devastation had reached so many viscerally poetic peaks that the cumulative effect was still positive.DissipationKyle Commentary BannerYour comment about the length is appropriate, as I felt in the early scenes that we may be in for a long haul—they seemed concerned with, as you say, controlling our anticipation deliberately to the point of exasperation. But as the episodic structure became more clear, the pacing bothered me less because I realized we weren't necessarily “going” anywhere in conventional plot terms. Eventually it becomes clear that there is a subtle evolution occurring as we watch Rublev grow slightly older through each episode, and the meandering structure becomes even more appropriate—we feel the way a life is experienced, not through a set of distinct plot points, but through and around events that shape our outlook.

One of the most powerful sequences in the film for me, and the one that keeps drawing my memory of the movie back to it like a magnet, is the Tatar raid you mentioned. Rublev's faith in people has been shaken a bit up to this point—illustrated surprisingly well in the should-be-too-much-but-it's-not scene where he smears dark paint over a perfectly gleaming white wall—but this is where he experiences a turning point. The fact that the raid is relentlessly long, reaching far past the point where we “get it” is precisely what works so well for me. It isn't just that innocents are subjected to cruelty that we know historically existed—the destruction has to be exhausting.

I think the point where the raid scene ceases to be a technically accomplished action sequence and becomes a beating-us-over-the-head parade of destruction is the point where Tarkovsky's penchant for long takes becomes a perfectly realized instance of form following function. I will never, no matter how hard I try, be able to get the scene where the Tatars bind a man, pour molten metal down his throat, and have a horse drag him off screen out of my head—and not simply because it illustrates an almost inconceivable horror, but because at that point I was beginning to reach my “ok move things along” point. Then Tarkovsky knocks us off our feet with the realization that we're trapped in this situation with the characters.

I have loved both his feature films thus far, already know I love two more, and this is shaping up way better than the project where Oliver Stone shifted his obsession from Charlie Sheen to Cuba.

One further note: I feel very confident saying anyone who says black and white is boring has never seen a Tarkovsky film, and I'm sad that he's switching to color next week.

Question time!

Sullen fieldTiny Andrew CommentaryI don't have time to watch as many movies as I used to, but I still watch a lot more than the average moviegoer.  Including my trips to the cinema this translates into roughly a movie a day.  But rarely do I feel touched in a way that makes me feel transcendent.  Even with my issues on just a bit of the length, there were two sequences that made me feel sublime - the pagan dance and the first ringing of the bell.  What is it about Tarkovsky's technique that helps foster this sensation so strongly?

It all boils down to an almost sadistic control of our anticipation, and a direct refutation of the obvious visual conclusion of various set ups in the film.  Focusing on that bell scene, it comes after a dangerous and blistering series of moments that show the heat of the bell as it is being constructed.  This continues in the visual style from the film which consists of drinking in the physical landscape.  The area around the bell is so hot and dangerous, with the hopes of the beauty of its potential sound weighing just as heavily on the creator.

The logical extension of that style continues and then the ram begins to swing.  Back and forth, once again the camera focused on the space around the ram, closer and closer, and then to the crowd when we finally hear it ring.  We expect to see the striking of the bell given all the focus on the physical space and its production, but instead we hear that glorious ringing in defiance of the idle aristocratic chatter gathered before it.  Still, what good is a bell if you can't hear the ring?  It's the only thing it's supposed to do, but here it becomes absolutely sublime.Clipper clapperTiny Kyle CommentaryPart of the transcendent effect you mention is, for me, due to the way he subtly arranges his shots throughout. As Rublev's life progresses, it's fascinating to watch Tarkovsky match the world around him to his evolving outlook. Early on we get those long, patient takes, much of which are outdoors near the water or in fields where the space is open and expansive. Even when he's threatened in the pagan scene you mentioned, we still get backgrounds stretching all the way to the river where people are, for lack of a better word, frolicking. (Sorry, frolicking with the devil.)

There is a sense here of endless inspiration—with so much on-screen at once, we understand how someone like Rublev could find art in anything, and could spend so much time just walking through the woods or outside the monastery observing. But as he sees more of society, Tarkovsky puts him in smaller, more confined frames and spaces. Rather than spending so much time outdoors, he works inside, in a mansion he's supposed to paint for an authority figure. While the Tatar raid has vast, sweeping shots of the outside of the keep, Rublev is inside, confined among the hundreds of residents and, eventually, the burnt and desecrated interior. Even in later scenes, where he has taken a vow of silence, Tarkovsky shoots him closer than before—confined in a smaller frame, only appearing in mid-length shots when he tries to save a woman he's taken under his wing.

When we finally get the shot of Rublev comforting the kid who bluffs his way through building the bell, Tarkovsky pans out, not only giving us Rublev's voice for the first time in 40-50 minutes, but also, finally, giving us a peaceful, broad, uninterrupted view of the landscape for the first time since the mid-point of the movie. Rublev has to some degree regained his faith, and the relief we feel due to the visual strategy puts us unexplainably but distinctly in the same emotional space.

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Next week: Solaris.

Tarkovsky with text

Posted by Andrew

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