In the Guardian, Steve Rose called Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966) “the best arthouse film of all time.” When I had a day alone recently, I watched its three hours. Here are some notes that don’t duplicate anything I can find in English on the Internet. They do contain plot spoilers.
The setting is Russia in the first decade of the 1400s. The people are beset by Tatars, oppressive rulers, and plagues. The landscape often looks like an environmental catastrophe. Tarkovsky uses many long takes, panoramic shots, and set-pieces in which the actors are positioned like figures on a stage or in a painting.
Rublev is a monk and icon-painter. Despite being the moral focus of the film, he is on screen not much more than three other monks. Maybe it was just me, but I found it challenging to keep track of individuals from one scene to another. That task is easier in a written text, because narrators typically use names and may inform us when we have already encountered a given character. Tarkovsky seems content to present life in the confusing way that it actually unfolds.
In the opening scene, a man makes a solo hot-air balloon ride, rising next to an unfinished Orthodox cathedral and then across a river dotted by small boats. Some people help him while others try to bring him down. Although the balloon is anachronistic, it looks suitably medieval. It closely resembles the great bell that is cast in the final scenes of the film–for the same cathedral–and raised from its subterranean mold across the river to the belfry. The balloon and the bell have similar sizes, shapes, and trajectories. The balloon-ride appears to be a stunt that fails, whereas the bell is a spiritual and aesthetic success accomplished by the people, working together.
second third major scene opens with a man being tortured in the public square as someone cries out that he might be innocent. The artist-monk Kirill walks past this execution and into the cool interior of a church, where he meets another icon-painter, Theophanes the Greek. They discuss the project that will involve Rublev and become his masterpiece. Back outside, we see the dead man’s bloody body.
In several key scenes, the Russian folk are shown in authentic rituals or celebrations–enjoying a jester mocking the Boyar nobility, enacting the Passion of Christ, or engaging in a midnight pagan orgy. (Compare Natascha’s dance in War and Peace.) In several scenes, they are cruelly crushed by Russian nobles, Tatars, or a conspiracy of both.
Observing these events, Rublev develops a populist and antinomian Orthodox theology. He feels he cannot complete his commission to paint the cathedral because it would require an image of the Last Judgment to terrify the people. Inside the bare cathedral, an apprentice reads 1 Corinthians 11 while the mute girl Durochka, a “holy fool” with long blond hair, watches in fascination:
“If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man …
Rublev gets an idea: “They are celebrating. It’s a holiday! They are not sinners. Nor is she [Durochka], even if she doesn’t wear a cover.” He will paint joyous scenes for the people.
Muteness is a motif. The jester has his tongue cut out. Durochka cannot speak. Andrei takes a vow of silence and refuses to paint after he kills a man to save Durochka. The new bell almost fails to ring–and if it never works, the Grand Duke will have its caster flogged to death.
Andrei has several foils, starting with the man in the balloon ride. Another is Kirill, who betrays the jester to the authorities and later quits holy orders, decrying monkish hypocrisy but seeking worldly gain for himself.
An important foil is Boriska, the young son of a bell-caster who died–with the whole family–of the plague. Boriska claims to know his father’s professional secret. With passionate intensity and perfectionism, he leads a crew to make a great bell, using the melted plate of the Grand Duke. He has lied about the secret, but he turns to God for help. Whether the bell will work is genuinely suspenseful. Foppish Italian visitors observe the young artist with pity: “il povoro regazzo” is bound to die a Russian’s death, tortured by a tyrant, because the bell won’t work. Their foreigners’ chatter is interrupted by the bell sounding sonorously. Boriska confesses his lie to Andrei, who says, “Let’s work together, you casting bells and me painting icons.” He then paints the cathedral’s interior in resplendent colors that we see in the epilogue, after three hours of monochrome.