Monday, July 15, 2024

Classic Movie Review: ‘Andrei Rublev’ is a Masterpiece on the Impermanence of Art

Directors: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Andrey Konchalovskiy, Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars: Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolay Grinko

Synopsis: The life, times, and afflictions of the fifteenth-century Russian iconographer St. Andrei Rublev.

This film was viewed as part of the event, “Tarkovsky: 6 Films, Master Works by a Master of Cinema,” at the Kentucky Theatre, accompanied by a Q&A by Raymond De Luca, Assistant Professor of Russian Studies and International Film Studies at the University of Kentucky

To continue the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, we move to what you might erringly think is a basic biopic. At least, you might if you simply read the film description above. It would be easy to ignore or skip this because most biopics are simply a dramatic retelling of a Wikipedia page. But please remember, that this is directed by a giant of cinema. Normal, basic, and unimaginative are not words that are linked to Tarkovsky, and for good reason.

Yes, ostensibly, the story of Andrei Rublev is linked to a Russian artist in the 1400s. But, like many great films, what this movie is about is not simply plot-based. Andrei Rublev is about many things, the least of which is Russian history. The film takes a daring look at revolutionary moments, the purpose and lack of permanence in art, and even moviemaking in general.

Andrei Rublev follows, you guessed it, Andrei Rublev (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), through seven important moments in his life, helpfully separated into chapters. It also contains both a prologue and an epilogue just begging for symbolic interpretation. In some ways, Rublev is the perfect source for one of Tarkovsky’s consistent obsessions, that of time itself. In a scene that could be considered fodder for the cutting room floor, Rublev and his compatriots walk past a tree and comment on their nostalgia and connection to it. The tree has likely been there for decades, but for each individual, it represents a different experience and a different length of time. Additionally, they note their own lack of attention on its importance until it is sure to disappear, another comment on impermanence.

Even before this, in the prologue, we are treated to a truly radical moment in film (remember, this is 1966!). We are shown a first person view of the initial balloon flight (and subsequent crash). This is accompanied not by cheers, but angry jeers from an audience below. We, in the audience, with the distance of time, understand the greatness of this leap, but like so many revolutionary moments, it is not understood in the present. Plus, the wild success of flight is quickly erased by its impending crash to the earth. For an impatient viewer, this may seem unconnected, but the substantial runtime does pay off this moment (in about three hours).

It would be easy to get caught up in character names and plot derivations, but I found them increasingly secondary to the struggle of art. Rublev is a great artist, that much is clear, but he is not a machine, birthed to create icons. He struggles, in many facets. Most clearly, he seems to balk at being ordered to create. This is a wonderful analogy to what many filmmakers must feel, being yoked to a studio system. In Tarkovsky’s case, this could be particularly felt, given his time and place. Rublev, the clear Tarkovsky analogue, is ordered to create art showing a religious purge of the sinners. He can easily create this, but he thinks deeply about the messages that he feels responsible for. He worries about the people who will see it, most notably poor, faithful individuals who already have a difficult existence. Rublev makes the difficult choice of turning his back on continued fame and money to perform art that is good and important.

Andrei Rublev has an extensive journey, with many side treks, but the final chapter tells the story of Boriska (Nikolay Burlyaev; star of Ivan’s Childhood). Boriska is tasked, or tasks himself with the making of a gigantic bell, a service his father previously provided. His father, along with many others, has died in a plague, and Boriska boldly lies and tells the Prince’s men that his father passed the secrets of bell making down to him, and only him. It is important to note that this bell, massive in size, is made to be placed at the apex of a church. This bell is the people’s connection to God, once removed, as they cannot speak directly. At the pinnacle of the film, when the bell is finally tested, a palpable tension is felt until, finally, the bell rings out. 

Andrei Rublev has watched the entire process in silence, but this connection creates a stirring in him, the artist. After years of struggle and torment, Rublev agrees to create art, being shown its purity by an adolescent. In many ways, Andrei Rublev is truly about the impermanence of art. No matter how much money and power funds it, all art can be erased. But the creation of it, the passion behind it, and the reasons we create art matter all the more. Andrei Rublev is a cinematic masterpiece, an effortful watch that rewards thought and consideration.

Grade: A

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