Following his impressive feature film debut, the World War II drama Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky created a three-hour biopic about — ostensibly about, anyway — the important religious painter Andrei Rublev, who lived in medieval Russia. It is one of my favorite films by one of my favorite directors, and not because I have any reason to care about its title character. Andrei Rublev is a deep exploration of human frailty and hope.
For nearly two decades, though, I’ve seen only shoddy versions, including The Criterion Collection’s original DVD release. This was such a shame, because the film, besides being that deep exploration of human frailty and hope, is visually stunning. Finally, this week, The Criterion Collection has released a new restoration on home video, and it feels like an absolute act of heroism. I’ve spent the last week basking in visual splendor I’ve only sensed before as I’ve revisited a film that fills me with something I think is compassion. That is, I believe, the point of this lengthy film that mostly looks at the world around this historical figure.
Andrei Rublev begins with a prologue that seems to have nothing to do with the titular character. He is not a part of this section, and none of the characters who are appear later in the film. Yet this introduction is the perfect distillation of what we’re about to experience. We find ourselves in the Russian countryside around the end of the fourteenth century and beginning of the fifteenth. A group of men are filling up and holding down a primitive hot air balloon, while another man is paddling to shore, just ahead of an angry mob. It’s this man’s hot air balloon, and he appears to have planned this daring escape, pinning his hopes on being the first human to fly.
Against the odds, and four centuries before the first recorded hot air balloon flight, the man succeeds and becomes untethered to the earth:
He has escaped the mob, but this quickly becomes beside the point, completely unimportant to us and to him. Any fear he felt has dissipated and been replaced with pure delight. The magnitude of what he’s done fills the frame.
It’s a remarkable view, and Tarkovsky, with flowing camera work, captures the wonder beautifully. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long. Soon balloon and man come crashing back to earth.
This, to me, is what the film captures beautifully: the wondrous aspirations, the pure hope of humanity, the ability to soar in spirit, all played out alongside our frailty, the harsh reality of the ground and our sometimes violent connection to it. It portrays deep sympathy for this sometimes magical and sometimes horrific existence.
The remainder of the film plays out in seven chapters, or episodes, beginning with the young Rublev in the year 1400. While we finally meet the artist, played by one of Tarkovsky’s favorite regulars Anatoly Solonitsyn, he still isn’t the primary subject of the episode, entitled “The Jester.” Rather, Rublev is merely a watcher.
He and two fellow monks who are also artists, Danil (played by another Tarkovsky regular, Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (played by Ivan Lapikov) are traveling when the weather changes and they seek refuge with a sub-strata of society. A bawdy entertainer is singing and dancing in the shelter. Danil is embarrassed and thinks the man is unholy. Kirill wanders off, perhaps to help authorities find the man. His fellows, then, are uncomfortable and judgmental. But Rublev looks.
And what does he see? Besides the jester (and besides us, since he is breaking the fourth wall a bit here), Rublev sees other men, women, and children. We get the sense that monks and peasants don’t often mingle. To these other people, the three monks are strangers who have come from some other way of being. They look back.
This first part introduces us to a painter who looks and cares about his fellow sufferers. Rather than judge, he’s inclined to lift. This is the painter who will eventually refuse to paint a mural of the Judgment because he doesn’t want to instill fear in these people who already have enough to be afraid of. There is torture and plague and war — the Tatar invasion of Russia was in full swing at this time. Disease and violent death are not abstract, distant concepts for these people, though compassion and even the concept of a caring God probably are.
And yet they still have their hopes and dreams that can cause their own unique form of misery. Take, for instance, one of my favorite characters in cinema, the jealous monk Kirill. Though little of Rublev’s life as depicted in this film has any basis in history (little is known about him, and this is one of the main reasons Tarkovsky liked the idea of a film around him), we do know that he was connected to another great painter, Theophanes the Greek. In part two, we meet Theophanes, but it’s Kirill who has gone to seek out the master painter as part of a deliberate plot to outshine Rublev, whom Kirill sees as a rival, though Rublev probably thinks they are friends. Theophanes has heard of Rublev, but Kirill seeks to undercut Rublev’s reputation by flattering Theophanes: Rublev is good, sure, but you, Theophanes, you are a master. In doing this, Kirill hopes the buttered-up Theophanes will ask for his help on a project, which he actually does. Kirill says no, naturally, hoping Theophanes will press. Okay, okay, Kirill acquiesces, but only if you send someone to fetch me, “before the brotherhood; before Andrei Rublev. Then I will serve you like a slave, like a dog, until the day I die.” Theophanes simply asks, “What is your name.” He responds, “Kirill.”
Back in the company of Rublev and Danil, Kirill sees Theophanes’ messenger arrive and goes out to collect his prize. But he was deluded. When he’s pointed to Rublev, the messenger asks if the man in front of him really is Andrei Rublev. And here’s the line that gets me every time. Kirill looks at the man and says, “Yes, this is Rublev, and I’m Kirill.”
Though his motives are impure, Kirill looks so innocent and childlike to me when he says his name, which the messenger doesn’t recognize and for which the messenger registers no interest. Kirill is not a particularly likable character. He’ll continue to have troubles through the film. Yet he’s completely recognizable. In a way, he’s like the man who was trying to fly but who cannot keep himself above the ground.
Again, this part is not really about Rublev himself. It’s about the world around him and the wretched people in it. Tarkovsky, as I said earlier, isn’t particularly interested in the facts of Rublev’s life. He’s interested in the development of a humane artistic vision, one that recognizes the fear and hope that can overwhelm — that can crush — a life.
Fittingly, at the end of this beautiful exploration of humanity at its lowest and highest, Tarkovsky’s film flits from black and white to a colorful montage of some of Rublev’s compassionate artistic work that went on to influence generations of artists and hopefully to inspire some feeling of care and understanding in the people, the rich and poor, the holy and profane, the comfortable and the unloved, who see it.