Andrei Rublev (1966)

It’s lazy and frankly unfair to compare Andrey Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick but lets do it anyway; Two talented directors,  blessed with almost total control over their output, operating at roughly the same time (Tarkovsky 1956-1986, Kubrick 51-99) making pictures on wildly different subjects with common themes running through them. Both were perfectionists, both relied and encouraged a certain level of over acting in their performers, both made two science fiction pieces…..and they get more tenuous…….

Whilst Kubrick kept a careful distance from the emotion and sometimes the soul of the characters, Tarkovsky paints their innermost thoughts through wrought faces, through symbolic imagery, frantic body language and long, long silences.

So whilst comparing the two against one another can be dangerous, skewing your opinion against one or the other, it can be useful to consider the two differing reflections of the same thing. 2001 sits alongside Solaris with ease whilst, to a lesser level, Andrei Rublev can be a good companion piece to Barry Lyndon. Watching one, it is nearly impossible to not recall the other.

Both focus on individuals, both span decades (something film does badly, as a rule), both show episodes of their protagonist’s life to demonstrate the whole, both have grand scores, both are baroque and bleak in their imagery and both are set against a backdrop (of a worlde gonne madde) of violence and unrest.

Lyndon is a study of greed, base lust and malice whilst Rublev focuses on faith, artistic creation, sin and torment. Both do it well.

Rublev (for those not up on their fifteenth century, Russian icon painters) is a fifteenth century, Russian icon painter about which little is known ( Tarkovsky has seemingly extrapolated a tortured soul from his works, which we see before the end credits. Rublev is a monk, eschewing worldly pleasures for a simple life of religious fulfillment and artistic creation. Unfortunately, fifteenth century Russia is a brutal place, subject to raids from the Tartars, ruled by feuding Princes, struck by famine and cold.

Rublev speaks rarely, embracing a vow of silence for a large portion of his life, he looks and listens to the violence and poverty around him. Using it to produce sparse, ascetic, almost uplifting paintings. We see Rublev watching a Jester criticise the church and state with satire before being led away by soldiers, stumbling across a pagan festival, being a victim during the sacking of Vladivar within a cathedral he has decorated and other scenes Tarkovsky imagines influenced the artist within him.

Creative (and wholly made up characters) pop up to symbolise creative freedom and indeed the lack of it, a man launches a hot air baloon whilst people decry him as a devil for example. Rublev is beset by visions; the crucifixion on a snow covered hill, a prince putting out the eyes of an artist so he can work no more and  crucially, a vision of his mentor Theophanes, who appears to Rublev whilst he sits in the ruins of Vladivar Cathedral, Rublev talks to him and at one point stares into the camera whilst railing against the idea of the truth as if speaking directly to us, centuries in the future.

Tarkovsky ( with wonderful cinematography from Vadim Yusov) makes every image a lesson in expressing the scene, fifteenth century Russia looks authentic and populated by fake people and stories give the film a dreamlike (nightmare) quality, slow motion is employed to heighten the horror of every day life.The violence is more shocking than say, Hostel, because of the context, eyes are cut out, men are tortured with fire, horses fall off scaffolding (then get stabbed), women are raped and it’s clear that life expectancy is short.

Andrei Rublev is a film that will reward repeat viewings, slowly unveiling it’s layers of subtle meaning and undercurrents through almost perfect use of sound and images. Like films are supposed to be.

The horses are lovely too.


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