One of the things that marks Andrei Tarkovsky as one of the greatest directors of all time is his completion separation from every filmmaker before or after him. Despite the fact that homage and imitation are regarded as part of the course in movie making Tarkovsky never expressed a desire to mimic any of his fellow filmmakers, he sought to be unique in order to make a genuine contribution to cinema as an art form he sought to capture film as a true personal expression, he would use his camera the way a painter would use his brush.
I use that particular metaphor in order to make a connection to what may be Tarkovsky’s defining masterpiece, ‘Andrei Rublev’ (though when you only make seven films and your worst performance is an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s rather difficult to choose a definitive masterpiece, out of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Andrei Rublev’, ‘Solaris’, ‘Stalker’, ‘The Mirror’, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘The Sacrifice’, they are all worthy of immeasurable praise). Technically speaking 2016 marks its fiftieth anniversary, I say technically because it was only screened once in 1966 before being pulled by censors, only to be shown again at the 1969 Cannes Fil Festival before it was finally re-released in the Soviet Union in 1971, only to go through another treatment so it could be shown in the U.S in 1973.
Considered to be the most ambitious biographical film of its era, ‘Andrei Rublev’ is loosely based upon the life of the icon painter of the same name, set against the backdrop of an unstable and violent land that is medieval Russia. Tarkovsky often referred to his movie as “a film of the earth”, one that displayed as much complexity in its texture and elemental aspects as it did in portraying its main character. Every shot has such a beautifully tactile feel to it, drawing the viewer in with its composition and layers of staging. The film is about the history and culture of an entire country as much as it is about its title character. Rublev is not merely the focus of the film, he is the vessel from which Tarkovsky carries his audience through this bleak and violent world. From observing the suffering of peasants to the cruelty of warfare as well as the pressures of the aristocracy and what place art has in this frenzied environment.
Tarkovsky’s description is an accurate one most definitely. He projects the real world onto the screen through naturalistic components. Everything has a real and visceral feel to it, but they also serve to make each scene look more dynamic and complex. But these elemental aspects are not simply present to give a scene some visual flair, they are included to enhance the emotion of each scene. By placing his otherworldly hero in such a chaotic and alien environment Tarkovsky creates a heightened sense of awareness not only for the characters on state of mind but their struggle to find a place within the world. The movie opens with a seemingly unrelated prologue that portrays a man attempting to achieve flight via a hot air balloon, but on a closer inspection the scene is there to lay out the complex world our title character will have to navigate.
This is one of the reasons why many of the key scenes within ‘Andrei Rublev’ have such an elemental feel to them and rarely allow themselves to be contained to a single level of depth. Rain can become a cleanser and symbol of relief, irregularities within the land can reflect the emotional turmoil that the characters must overcome and a burning mass can be on hand to witness a moment of horrific realisation. Even the individual dust particles (somehow captured with such stunning accuracy in the 1960s) can represent an unsaid tension in the air of a scene.
It all sounds very methodical, but don’t think for a moment that Tarkovsky was above letting emotions rule his style of filmmaking. Above all else there is an almost unexplainable sense that everything in front of us was shot with an instinctive perception of how best to evoke the inner emotions from every audience member. Maybe it arises in ‘Andie Rublev’ out of a common connection between both Rublev and Tarkovsky, one that goes beyond than sharing a first name. An artist who almost feels inadequate to answer for the chaos of the world he inhabits, whose own principles hinder his career (from Rublev’s refusal to use his talents as a painter to exploit people’s fears of the eternal damnation by reputing the Church’s request to Tarkovsky risking his own credibility by not simply pandering to the Soviet regime, the only sure fire way to ensure your films were made in such an environment) or the fact that in a world of turmoil their work, for all its controversies, was embraced as a national symbol.
This could be why the main theme of ‘Andrei Rublev’, amid its comments on religion and politics, is that of artistic freedom and the pressures of working as an artist under an oppressive regime. It attaches such great significance to the role of the artist and paints him as such a conflicted and complex persona that by the time the film reaches its epilogue that displays Rublev’s surviving work in all its glory, it only seems more miraculous.
One role of an artist is of course to observe the world around them and Tarkovsky’s camera work allows viewers to do that tenfold. His signature use of long takes allows the viewer to adopt a meditative, almost existential state of mind. Tarkovsky’s shots are filled with metaphysical elements, abstract imagery and intellectual themes but ultimately what separated him as a master of his craft was his ability to evoke such deep and complex emotions from those shots. Inevitably there comes a time when you can stop analysing and interpreting and just feel the weight of the world around you and reach the emotional core of each scene.
In fact half of what many people interpret from ‘Andrei Rublev’ is likely to be more atmospheric than symbolic. The film does not tell a definitive beginning-middle-end story and instead divides itself up into eight chapters, each of which is only loosely related to the main film. In fact for a film about a painter there is in fact very little painting on display. We have segments depicting religious persecutions, massive construction projects, vows of silence, conflicts of conscience and destructive military invasions that burns an entire city down to the ground.
The way Tarkovsky commanded time and space within his movies was unparalleled, and he used this command to pull in varying elements that made his movies feel more like a form of visual poetry. Throughout ‘Andrei Rublev’ his compositions, landscapes, philosophical discussions and meditative techniques all serve to bring an extra dimension to his style of filmmaking. His films create this meditative state to reflect their characters inner struggles. ‘Andrei Rublev’ is littered with people trying to find their purpose in life, from rival painters who are jealous of Rublev’s own talents and as a result are unable to deal with their own inferiority, to the young bell maker for whom the burden of living up to his father’s reputation rests on him with crushing weight. It’s one of many reasons why throughout the film Tarkovsky never asks the viewer to understand the meaning behind the scene, he asks simply that we understand the emotion of the subject.
This relates back to how the film itself is a collection of moments rather than a definitive story. We are not experiencing the life of an artist simply by having the events of said life played back to us with no significance. What Tarkovsky accomplishes within ‘Andrei Rublev’ is actually an even greater achievement, he uses a select group of scenes to convey what shapes and influences a character, what drives them and why they react the way they do to later events. He displays what is significant to the central character and his camerawork end up replicating what both the viewer and the character take interest in, almost like a train of thought that tracks each event on a level we’re only subconsciously aware of.
What makes all of this even more remarkable is the way Tarkovsky separated himself from other auteurs of his and every other era. His techniques were completely his own and he reportedly went out of his way to ensure his style was not mimicking or impersonating that of another director. It’s for this reason that many regard Tarkovsky as not only a director who conveyed such astonishing emotion and deep symbolism but also one that invented an entirely new language, unique to the art of cinema.
“Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." – Ingmar Bergman.