Andrei Tarkovsky is a name that will eventually pop up for people entering into art house cinema. He is one of those directors that you hear whispers about but is often overshadowed by Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa when it comes to foreign director. However, I can attest to this fact. Once you view a Tarkovsky film, you forever change your understanding of cinema. I discovered this when I first viewed Ivan's Childhood, remember it when watching Solaris, and rediscovered this after my recent viewing of his black and white masterpiece Andrei Rublev. The film while extremely slow in its pacing offers a brilliant commentary for the patient viewer and is an expertly composed film that rivals both Bergman and Kurosawa in its style and delivery. Bested by only Sergei Eisenstein, Tarkovsky is the preeminent Russian director and created a large catalog of excellent films, despite continual censorship on the part of then Soviet government. It is an unflinching look at a significant Russian historical figure that has more to say about Russia's over-glorified past than its iconic painter. Through a montage of scathing absurdist imagery and poetic cinematography, Tarkovsky manages to recreate medieval Russia, while also making the film blatantly pertinent to the problems facing Soviet Russia in the 1960's.
As noted, the film has as much to do with artist and monk Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsin) as it does with the people and events surrounding him. He is accompanied throughout most of the film by his fellow monks the disillusioned Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and the quietly pensive Danil (Nikolai Grinko). Together they set out on an artistic endeavor to paint at a cathedral, which leads them throughout the constantly changing landscape of Russia in the 1500's. The film begins with the monks taking refuge in a bar, only to discover a jester denouncing the church and state, which leads to the jesters denunciation and subsequent death. What follows is a series of vignettes set to chapters with titles like The Holiday and The Silence, which involve some combination of Andrei and the other monks witnessing religious persecution, druidic rituals and mass murder in the name of the state and church, leading to various reactions amongts the monks, most notably Andrei's moment of doubt in his other wise religiously stalwart ways. A feud arises amongst the group in their decision on how to paint a version of The Last Judgementt for a chapel, Andrei fears that a rendition of such attrocities would only scare patrons in a time when death and fire were daily realities. Kirill disagrees with Andrei and the fellow monks have a falling out. The film then focuses on a Tartar attack of a village, which leads Andrei to commit murder in an attempt to protect a young women from rape, leading the confused monk to partake in a vow of silence. Andrei continues his vow of silence, despite witnessing Kirill return to the monastery and beg forgiveness. In fact, it is not until Andrei watches a young man pretend to know the secrets to his father's bell making process that he breaks his silence and tells the boy to continue making bells, while he continues to make icons. In a masterful conclusion, the film pans around various images of Rublev's actual paintings to remind viewers that the importance is not the artist or his artistic ability, but instead what his images represented for a specific time and place, a rather pertinent stylistic choice for a director like Tarkovsky.
Image is key to Tarkovsky, it takes only viewing a scene from any of his films to realize this, however, it is particularly relevant to a film like Andrei Rublev, because it does, in fact, focus on the life of an artist. Although debatable, the most visceral response an individual can have to a film comes through its visual elements. It is how the single composition of a variety of things come together on a single frame of a moving picture that catches the visual senses and captures the viewer. Sure music, editing and narrative are important additions...to almost every other director, but not Tarkovsky. I would go so far as to say that in terms of filmmakers Tarkovsky is an impressionist. It is a combination of seemingly arbitrary images together which create a cohesive idea, in this case the woes of political and religious oppression. It is easy to see why this film bothered the Soviet government, it is scathingly anti-state government, yet to the untrained eye it seems like a set of illogical images (Think Luis Bunuel's The Milky Way in black and white). What concerns those being rebelled against are not the obvious forms of rebellion, but those subtle enough to pass under the radar undetected. Andrei Rublev is certainly one of these films and Tarkovsky's oeuvre proves to be the same as well. For example, his desolate landscape and distancing shots in Ivan's Childhood reflect a commentary on the effects of war on youth and a loss of innocence, while the repetition of imagery and subtle inclusion of the absurd help to drive home the sci-fi simulacrum that is the world of Solaris. Andrei Rublev is revolutionary both figuratively and literally and it is done so through the best way possible, subversively subtle. Which when you think about it is perhaps the best way to describe Tarkovsky as a director.
This is one of the backbones of The Criterion Collection, and is in dire need of an upgrade. With that being said, the outdated release by the company is still far superior to its rival companies and is well worth buying if you, like me, cannot wait for a blu-ray release.