Made in 1966, Andrei Rublev was only Andrei Tarkovsky’s second feature film, and although it was suppressed by the Soviet authorities, its epic scope, lyrical beauty and inspired visions won it the International Critics’ prize at Cannes in 1969. Recounting the life of the titular 15th-century icon painter through a series of elliptical chapters, it is a slow-paced, dreamlike meditation on art, mysticism and power.
The film starts with an enigmatic prologue that appears to show a man evading a crowd by climbing up a church tower and escaping in some sort of hot-air balloon. As the camera adopts his point of view, we fly with him over land and water for an exhilarating moment before the contraption crashes into the river. This introduction may be an Icarus-inspired allegory that presages what is to follow, but its mystery resists interpretation. The images of a beautifully desolate, watery land seen from a sky-high viewpoint, and the virtuoso, fluid camera movement are perfect guides into the poetic world of the film.
Andrei’s life is told through a chronological succession of disconnected tableaux that weave together a complex tapestry of echoing themes and images. Andrei is a man tormented by his talent, and the way it is used by a tyrannical authority. Called to decorate the cathedral, he is unable to start because he refuses to scare people by painting The Last Judgement, commissioned by the Grand Prince. Instead, he decides to represent The Feast. This is also the title of a previous chapter, in which he comes across nude pagan revellers in an enchanting sequence; he is both repulsed and fascinated by their rituals, and one sensual naked woman in particular. Events and encounters repeatedly challenge Andrei’s conception of faith, and it seems that in this instance, he learns from the pagans, deciding that religious art should be about a joyous celebration rather than the threat of punishment.
The film is a spiritual quest and there are religious motifs throughout, most notably a striking depiction of the crucifixion set in a snowy Russia. Andrei himself has a Christ-like quality, and there is a Jesus and Judas theme that runs throughout the film. Andrei is contrasted with one of his fellow monks, Kyrill, who is jealous of his talent; Kyrill’s betrayal appears in a displaced form: it is not Andrei he denounces, but a jester whom they both saw mock a boyar. Later, the jester will accuse Andrei of the act, confusing him with Kyrill, in a blurring of the Jesus and Judas roles. This motif also appears in the Prince’s rivalry with his brother. Learning that the men who have worked on his palace are now on their way to his brother’s to make him an even more beautiful house, the Prince lets them go, only to have his men treacherously ambush them in the forest, and blind them. The image of the eyeless men, blood dripping from their empty orbits, piteously wandering around the forest, is one of the most chillingly memorable in the film. Later, the Prince’s brother allies himself with the Tartars against his own people in the sack of Vladimir, another sequence of breath-taking medieval horror on the theme of brotherly betrayal.
The jester’s mistaking of Andrei as the traitor is telling. Andrei is no hero; he is an anguished, sometimes indecisive man who, for a large part of the film, does nothing about the violence and injustices he witnesses. That is, until he acts to protect a mentally retarded girl he has become attached to during the hellish attack on Vladimir. He will subsequently atone for his violent deed through a vow of silence and a refusal to paint. Only the spectacle of the extraordinary determination of a young boy, son of a bell-maker - an echo of Andrei’s younger self - will make him change his mind. The epic struggle of the boy in making the bell, the hoisting of the enormous artefact up the tower and the first sound of its ringing are wonderfully filmed, thoroughly mesmerising moments. Here again, Andrei is thinking about the purpose and use of religious art: it is because he has seen the joy that the boy’s bell has given to people that he decides to return to painting.
Although the film is about an icon painter, we never see him paint, and we don’t see his work until the end. The film concludes with a series of images of the real Andrei Rublev’s icons, slowly succeeding one another on the screen, their colours contrasting with the eerie, misty black and white of the rest of the film (Tarkosvky would use the contrast between monochrome and colour again to different effects in Solaris and Stalker). As water falls on a painted surface the sound of rain is heard, and this mutates into the final image of three horses standing by a river in the rain. The penultimate shot seems to be an echo of a powerful earlier sequence: after the destruction of Vladimir, Andrei watches snow fall inside the cathedral. A central image for Tarkovsky, it memorably recurs in Stalker (1979): finally finding themselves on the threshold of the sacred room at the heart of the Zone, three men watch rain fall inside. In both cases, it is a miraculous moment: the occurrence of something that shouldn’t happen, something both magical and fearsome, an irruption of nature inside the temple of God, erected by man. A perfect image for Tarkovsky’s visionary cinema as a whole, it stirs something deep inside that is beyond words.