Because little is known about the life of the 15th-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky's portrait of the great icon painter is necessarily speculative. An ambitious movie of epic length and sweep, ANDREI RUBLEV, a frequent entry on lists of the best motion pictures of
all time, was one of the very few religious films ever produced under Soviet auspices.
In the year 1400, Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsin) is traveling on foot, accompanied by two fellow artist-monks, Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Daniel (Nikolai Grinko). The three men take refuge in a hut, where they witness a buffoon (Rolan Bykov) entertaining a group of peasants. Suddenly, soldiers
appear, knock the buffoon unconscious, and take him away.
In 1405, Rublev's burgeoning artistic reputation prompts Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev) to ask the monk to join him in a commission to paint a church. When Andrei agrees, the jealous Kirill abandons their monastery and goes off on his own.
In 1406, the idealistic Andrei debates the ghost of the cynical, pessimistic Theophanes on the nature of God and man. The Passion of Christ (Sos Sarkissian) is recalled. Later, Andrei is tied to a post by a group of naked pagan revelers, one of whom, a beautiful young woman, frees him. On the
following morning, the pagans are attacked by a gang of Christian soldiers, but the nude young woman manages to swim away to safety.
In 1408, the adornment of a cathedral is delayed by Andrei's reluctance to paint the Last Judgment; his gentle spirit rebels at the harshness of its theme. In his mind, he recalls an incident in which several of his assistants had been maimed as a result of sibling rivalry between a pair of
Andrei encounters a deaf-mute simpleton (Irma Rausch) and is touched by her innocence. When the city of Vladimir is raided and pillaged by Tartar hordes abetted by a treacherous Russian nobleman (Yuri Nazarov), Andrei kills a man who is about to rape the deaf-mute. Sick with guilt and disgusted
with humanity, the monk vows to give up painting and takes an oath of silence.
In 1412, the impoverished Kirill appears at the monastery and is taken back within the fold. The deaf-mute girl goes off with a Tartar chieftain to become one of his wives.
A delegation seeking the services of Nikolka the bell-maker is told that he has succumbed to the plague. Boris (Nikolai Burlyaev), his adolescent son, claims to have inherited his father's private trade secrets and successfully begs to be awarded the commission intended for Nikolka. Meanwhile, the
buffoon appears and accuses Andrei of having betrayed him back in 1400. Kirill, the actual betrayer, acknowledges his guilt to Andrei and exhorts him to resume painting.
After a great deal of time and effort, Boris and his crew complete their commission. During the jubilant inaugural ringing of the bell Boris has cast, Andrei encounters the deaf-mute and sees that she is happy. After the ceremonies, Andrei chances upon Boris, exhausted and weeping, and breaks his
15-year vow of silence in order to confront the boy. When Boris confesses that his father never relayed to him the secrets of bell-making, Andrei suggests that the two of them team up. "You'll cast bells, I'll paint piano icons," he says.
The story of Andrei Rublev is framed by a prologue and a coda. In the prologue, a man ascends in a hot air balloon and ecstatically soars over the countryside until he is forced to crash-land. In the eight-minute color coda, Rublev's actual paintings are put on display. The color coda is a nice
idea but some viewers, after almost three hours of immersion in Rublev's tortuous journey through life, may be disappointed in the somewhat faded and weathered paintings that constitute his only surviving work.
After studying the history, iconography, and architecture of Medieval Russia and recruiting prominent artists to reconstruct authentic interiors and sets, Tarkovsky, at the age of 32, began shooting ANDREI RUBLEV, his second feature film, on the original locations of the story. By the time the
movie was completed (in 1966), Nikita Khruschev had fallen from power, and the limits on artistic freedom in the Soviet Union had narrowed again. Officially charging that the film did "not correspond to historical truth"--but in fact probably more disturbed by its grimness, its violence, its
flashes of nudity, and its profound religiosity--the Soviet censors demanded cuts. When Tarkovsky refused to comply, his movie was shelved and Russian audiences were not allowed to see it until 1971.
The film's theme, as its director later described it, was the inferiority of goodness as an intellectual concept to goodness as a humble everyday state. It is therefore not surprising that the most effective portions of his episodic film are the least intellectualized ones. The sequence in which
Andrei encounters a congregation of pagans skinny-dipping, is tied to a tree, and then released by a nymph, carries a tasteful erotic charge worthy of Renoir, father or son. The episode of the Tartar raid on Vladimir combines the busy-ness of a Breughel painting with the probing, restless
camerawork of a Miklos Jancso reel (though Tarkovsky's traveling shots are more conventionally moral than those engendered by Jancso's pitiless gaze). ANDREI RUBLEV's climactic story, "The Bell," a relatively straightforward and accessible parable on the virtues of faith and tenacity, is nearly
self-sufficient; one could imagine it winning an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short Film.
The talkier sequences that separate these three impressive set pieces may tend to alienate the more secular members of ANDREI RUBLEV's audiences. Indeed the film will appeal more to those for whom religion is an exciting mystery than to those for whom it's just a mystery. However, the earnestness
and depth of Tarkovsky's humanism ultimately save this film from succumbing to the lure of theology, which, like most intellectual disciplines, does not photograph well.
Less focused, visceral, and cumulatively powerful than Ingmar Bergman's medieval masterpiece, THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)--a similar saga of faith under fire--ANDREI RUBLEV is nonetheless a very impressive synthesis of personal filmmaking and epic aspiration. (Extreme violence, nudity.)