Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ seems to me to be one of the few films guaranteed to be watched centuries from now, if the art form that captured my heart (and so often betrays it – which means that movies are, in the end, very much like us) lasts past the point when our brains will have been made half synthetic by the friends of Ray Kurzweil. I finally got to see the film at the weekend; I wanted to wait to see it in a cinema, cued by my old friend the wonderful film critic and art historian Mike Catto who says that watching movies on television is like going to the British Museum to see a mummy rather than visiting the pyramids. I’m grateful for DVD letting me see films that otherwise would only be evocative titles in my head, but when opportunity arises to get into a theatre, I take it.
And so, ‘Andrei Rublev’.
It’s a film about resurrection – the central character (who certainly isn’t a protagonist in the traditional sense – he responds to circumstances, but doesn’t exactly drive the story) is acted upon by the tragic and awful events that can occur when political power and religious law get too tightly bound together; he changes his mind about some things; he loses the comfort to paint the icons that the world knows him for; he fails to intervene to save someone beautiful; he tries to save someone beautiful; he seems ultimately resigned to the world being broken, and to the medieval Russian church being utterly corrupt, but he eventually finds faith that there is a way to let his gift use him. And, five hundred years later, in the film’s coda, it does.
Now, I want you to forget what you just read: because it implies that ‘Andrei Rublev’ is nothing more than an epic adventure story, comparable to those other two-named eponymous behemoths ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘El Cid’. Certainly it tells a story – although the fact that the story seems to include every psychological motivation and consequence known to humanity makes that an understatement so flimsy it might as well be gibberish. I can’t convey how the visual shock of this film affected me – my friend who loves it deeply is right when he says that it’s as if Tarkovsky took a time machine back to the fifteenth century and unobtrusively filmed people suffering and praying and living.
It looks that authentic.
And it feels alive. It has some of the most striking images I’ve ever seen – the horse rolling over and up at the beginning (which seems to me to be a direct reference to Robert Bresson’s ‘Au Hasard Balthasar’, inverting that film’s ending, and an explicit reference to the third day after the Crucifixion), the running of the monks in the rain, the girl frightened and angered by the paint smeared on the wall, the astonishing sequence of horrific pillage, in which one of the most terrifying things in cinema occurs (no more unpleasant than what happens to the bad guys at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but the tone is so…real?…that you have to look away, and can’t ignore what this film is saying about the misuse of power), the tension of waiting for the bell to chime, and the very last image: four horses, alive and representing life itself, a quantum leap beyond the film’s earlier equine resurrection.
Like I said, it’s a film about life after death, and resurrection of all kinds – the kind that billions of people imagine for the human race, the kind that’s necessary to get up every morning, the kind that the medium in which Tarkovsky worked needs with a kind of desperation I’m not sure it has known before. Cinema’s a miracle, but has forgotten this
For more on Tarkovsky have a look at my friend Dmitry Trakovsky’s lovely documentary. Meantime? Life.