Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whence Comes Art?

Film: Andrei Rublyov (Andrei Rublev)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Russian filmmakers don’t do things by halves, it seems. Maybe it’s a feature of being from such a large, expansive country, but it seems like Russian novels and Russian films are always of epic length. Even stories about Russians go on forever. There’s a particular fatalism to Russian stories as well—the peasants learned long ago that their lives were pretty much worth only the work they could produce. One gathered what happiness he or she could when it was available, knowing that most of life was back-breaking work, hunger, and pain. Mmmm…fatalism. Tastes like borscht.

Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublyov (spelled Andrei Rublev in English-speaking countries, not that it makes a hell of a lot of difference) has that particular Russian flavor to it. It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000 hours long. This film is a slow meditation on the nature of art, inspiration, and faith. As such, the 3+ hour running time is probably justified. Most things called a “meditation” don’t go too fast as a rule, and there’s a lot of story to tell here.

The film concerns the life of the eponymous character, a painter of religious icons in 15th-Century Russia. Rublyov is also a monk, with everything that entails. Rublyov’s struggle is in reconciling his beliefs with the reality of not only his life, but the life he witnesses around him. In his mind, faith is absolutely necessary for an artist; without it, he would not have the inspiration to create anything.

The disconnect for Rublyov (and through association, for Tarkovsky as well) is that he is frequently forced to create his art for those who hold political power, which in this story, and in this period, and in Russia in general, means he is creating art for people who not only hold power, but use it abusively. In short, Rublyov must pour his heart and faith out for people who seem to embody its opposite—a theme that Tarkovsky certainly knew well, as this film was banned after a single screening in his homeland.

The film takes place in nine parts—a prologue, seven chapters, and an epilogue. In each, questions of art, creation, and faith are explored both in terms of Rublyov’s life and his work. Over the course of the film, Rublyov has his talent praised, encounters a great artist who appears to have a vastly different faith—one that Rublyov believes should make him unable to create, encounters Pagans, goes through bouts of self-doubt, creative slumps, periods of self-imposed silence, and a rekindling of his faith and his art.

For me, the most interesting parts of the film come in the middle. The sequence with the Pagans seems to give the best indication of the extent and nature of Rublyov’s intense faith. He is captured by a group of Pagans, who have been cavorting naked in a field. Because he is a spiritual outsider in this place, the Pagans have plans for him that involve tying him to a cross and then drowning him in a nearby river on the following morning. Rublyov is saved by a Pagan woman named Marfa, who releases him. The next day, when Marfa’s life is in danger, Rublyov sails on a boat past her, refusing to look at her because of her Pagan wickedness and the facd that her nudity shames him.

In the following sequence, Rublyov’s faith is shaken. Charged with painting the Final Judgment as a fresco, he balks. He does not want to paint such terrible scenes, which will no doubt terrify the people who see them. He has no desire for his art to be something terrible, but wishes it instead to be beautiful and to inspire. During this moment of doubt and trial, he recalls a time from his past when the Grand Prince made a habit of putting out the eyes of his artisans, preventing them from duplicating their work (or doing better) for someone else.

This, which is the central section of the film, is fascinating to me, because it seems to strike at the heart of Rublyov’s dilemma as well as the problem of Tarkovsky. As the director, Tarkovsky is driven to create, just as Andrei Rublyov is compelled to create. And yet he recognizes that the reward for such great creation could well be a terrible, unbearable punishment. He must create, but creating also puts his mind, life, body, and soul in terrible jeopardy. Tarkovsky must have known that certain aspects of this film (the touting of faith, for instance) would immediately get him in trouble with those in power in communist (and officially atheist) Russia. But he did it anyway, compelled to create.

The film closes with a number of views of Rublyov’s work. I have a particular fondness for Russian Orthodox iconography. I’m not sure what about it appeals to me so much, but I find it frequently moving and beautiful, and Rublyov’s work is still very powerful.

Andrei Rublyov moves very slowly at times, but this pace is fitting the contemplative nature of much of the film. This film works internally more than externally. It is marvelous in places and worth watching, but you should prepare yourself for a slow time, although not a slow time without substantial rewards.

Why to watch Andrei Rublyov: A meditation on the source of art, inspiration, and belief.
Why not to watch: So slow, it sometimes moves in reverse.


  1. l found the end sequence with the bell very compelling. Boris' reaction was perfect, as was Rublev's. One of the best medieval films I have seen.

    1. I should probably watch this again, if only for the display of art at the end.