This week I finally found time to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 epic Andrei Rublev, recorded on TV a few weeks ago. I hadn’t seen it for many years and now wonder if I ever saw it at all. The only mental snapshot I retained of it turned out not to be in the film at all, though it did involve a church. I also retain a snapshot of Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, which, again, I haven’t seen for years: a long shot of rainwater on a puddle in a ruined building. I’ll doubtless discover that too was a false recall.
There’s a lot of water in Andrei Rublev: the slow studies of wet stuff that make people think of Tarkovsky as a kind of pantheistic mystic. The most beautiful one – and the most mystical – is of the young apprentice, shot with a Tartar arrow, who (in slow motion) falls into a stream, followed shortly after in the water by a small, swirling cloud of white paint: the paint, one is forced to assume, that leaked into another stream in one of the film’s earlier scenes.
I’d forgotten the many horrors in Rublev, which wasn’t shown in Soviet Russia until 1971, and then only in censored form. It remains a brutally real depiction of life in medieval Russia: gouged eyes, burned limbs, panic and devastation wherever you look. Yet at the centre of its long narrative sweep is the still, Christlike visage of the icon painter Rublev himself, striving to square his humanity with the reality of power, violence and religious conditioning. (He refuses to paint a Last Judgement in the cathedral because he believes Christianity shouldn’t rule through superstitious terror.)
For all the film’s atrocities, there are as many moments of preternatural stillness and austere tenderness. Divided into chapters that jump forward in time, Rublev‘s only real thread is the haunted consciousness of its eponymous protagonist, who in one section takes a vow of silence that renders Anatoly Solonitsyn’s melancholy good looks even more despairing. (With a touch of perversity, Tarkovsky described the actor’s single-minded intensity as “demoniacal”.)
I remember thinking Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, was a pretentious travesty, so it’s nice to rediscover that Rublev, his second, is as beautiful, as meditative, and as visually thrilling as it is shocking and starkly unsentimental.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Those magnificent lines from 1 Corinthians 13 – we hear them spoken in the film – turn out to be true after all.