Andrei Rublev Reaches Fifty, A Film on what it is to be Russian

Conor Fay

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St. George's Cathedral Photo Credit - cat_collector
St. George’s Cathedral Photo Credit – cat_collector

 Russia, dear Russia, she endures everything.

What is uniquely Russian is uniquely alien to our Western eyes. Such misery and confusion emanates from the great slab of land which leans heavily on Europe’s shoulder. This confusion is understandable, the nature of Russia’s national character alludes the West.

     It slaps you in the face in Andrei Rublev, the canonical work of the legendary Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky.

     Andrei Rublev turned 50 this year and it is undoubtedly a classic. The critics’ wing are resolutely behind it and it’s a regular in the ‘all-time’ polls.  The leading man, Anatoly Solonitsyn came from nowhere without any experience to give a performance that would earn him a place in Tarkovsky’s later classics, Stalker and Solaris. Alongside the wizard cast there is that marvellous script and the magic cinematography. The boxes are all resolutely ticked.

     But there are hundreds of great films, most of which are fast-paced and in English, traits not shared by Andrei Rublev, this film’s triumph and the source of its relevance today lie in Tarkovsky’s ability to humanise and relate the Russian man (not woman unfortunately) to his audience. I feel obliged to re-iterate, it really is not fast-paced.

Icon of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, Andrei Rublev, Photo Credit - Jonathan Aquino
Icon of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, Andrei Rublev, Photo Credit – Jonathan Aquino

   The film is based loosely on the life story of its titular character, a 15th century monk who painted glorious religious icons, one of Russia’s most enduring artists. I wouldn’t watch the film through the lens of an historian however, it jumps years at a time to events which only Tarkovsky deems important; an excommunication, a pagan orgy, the sacking the city Vladimir, the construction of a bell. Tarkovsky arranges these sequences not merely to tell Rublev’s tale, but to translate the Russian experience onscreen.

That experience is defined by struggle. For a film of this scope and ambition, we do not get one lingering shot of a vast plateau or of snow-peeked mountains, romantic images have no place here. Tarkovsky zooms in uncomfortably close on the landscape, highlighting the extremity of the Russian conditions, the film is cold and wet. We look at the mountains instead from the characters’ point of view right up beside them; they are no longer beautiful, only an obstacle to overcome.

     The difference here between Andrei Rublev and say, The Revenant is crucial. In The Revenant, what I saw was the mega-rich Leonardo DiCaprio genuinely suffering to authenticate the film’s story of survival, I left the cinema happy.  I am not happy watching the characters navigate the Slavic terrain in Andrei Rublev, quite frankly I’m appalled.

An array of the stark Russian imagery, immaculately produced by Tarkovsky in Andrei Rublev    

 Tarkovsky’s film frames the lifelong struggle of the Russian man with his country, he is constantly working just in order to keep the fire going and resorts to decaying apples for sustenance through the relentless spells of famine. There are no complaints made however, no gargling screams or teeth-grinding à la DiCaprio, just a dejected grimace, they know convenience is rare.

     The Russian peasants of Andrei Rublev suffer greatly as they did for hundreds of years after, but the blame cannot merely be laid at the feet of nature. The history of barbarity committed by Russian rulers on their own people is surely second to none. The Holodomor of Ukraine, a great starvation of the peasants orchestrated by Stalin and his comrades alone almost qualifies them.

     Andrei Tarkovsky, far from shying away, uses this barbarous trend as the crux of his film. The one chapter of Andrei Rublev which demands the attention of every viewer is the sacking of Vladimir.

     The set piece is remarkably sophisticated in its organisation. Literally hundreds of townsfolk run amok as they are surrounded by a joint force of horseback Russian usurpers and Tatar mercenaries who slaughter them. A harrowing scream scores the action as a woman is raped in the background and the sequence is beset by swirling smoke and raging fires (Tarkovsky somehow managed to get a dazzling performance from the elements.)

These scenes eventually condense and move indoors, we have seen massive destruction but Tarkovsky knows there is more to violence than that, he understands that we only really connect on a more personal scale. Violence in cinema these days is quick and dirty, pornographic even. The defining elements are loud screams and airborne viscera. When the monk is tortured in Andrei Rublev the viscera is absent. I don’t get the adrenaline rush of a horror movie, but I watch in horror as the devout man, detached from those around him begs his god to deliver what was promised-

                                            “ You will forgive me God, will you? 

                                                                     By the end of it I want to know that answer almost as much as he does, regardless, Tarkovsky delivers. The director elevates violence from its ‘quick fix entertainment’ position in popular culture to something I detest, hopefully you’ll detest it too.

Russia, Novgorod. Photo Credit- Loris Silvio Zecchinato
Russia, Novgorod. Photo Credit- Loris Silvio Zecchinato

     Yet for all the misery cast masterfully onto the screen, Tarkovsky preserves the qualities of human kin. Our perception of Russia is stained blood-red thanks to the horrors of the Soviet Union, it has not been wiped away by Putin either; the Russian bear’s backing of Assad in Syria helped the development of a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. It is wrong to characterise Russians in the same heap as those nightmares however. This film has that effect, engage it, allow yourself to be swallowed in to its vision of Russia and be shaken by both the horror and the humanity.

     At the end of Andrei Rublev, in the sloppy black earth beside an upright, pale post two male characters embrace each other. One sobs, the other consoles, both have lost so much. They promise each other that they will persevere and succeed despite the cruelty and oppression of their homeland’s regime. It’s a moment of such rare tenderness that the barbaric context is forgotten, Russia is penetrated, and a great warmth lies within.

Happy 50th Andrei.

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Conor Fay