on 12 September 2014
With Andrei Roublev Andrei Tarkovsky and fellow screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky couldn't have picked a more ambitious subject. Though little known in the West, the 15th century Russian iconographer is considered in Russia as emblematic not only of artistic creativity at the highest level, but of the very creation of Russia itself as a united country. The story of the production of this film is a fascinating but complex one. I recommend reading Johnson and Petrie's outstanding survey The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue to get a full account of it. The authorities originally okayed a script which consisted of 2 parts with 12 episodes and 2 prologues. Lack of money and other production problems led to the film being reduced to 2 parts, 8 episodes, a prologue and an epilogue. The cuts made shifted the tone away from a Socialist Realist perspective (gone is the planned opening depiction of the Kulikovo Field battle which would have shown a 'Russian' leader in a positive heroic light) towards an inner deeply religious meditation on the nature of art and the permanent link between religion and culture. Communism and Christianity are of course anathema to each other and the post-Krushchev administration attempted to suppress the film completely when they realized its full nature. It was only due to foreign pressure (particularly from the Cannes Film Festival which awarded the film the International Critics Prize in 1969) that the film was released inside Russia and people could at last see what all the fuss was about.
The struggle to get Andrei Roublev released led many western critics to interpret Tarkovsky's extraordinary depiction of an artist struggling to find a voice in Medieval times as an allegory on the director's own struggles with the Communist regime. Though this reading may be supported, it is a posthumous view coming from outside Russia and from commentators all too quick to slip the knife into a despised political system. For a more accurate appraisal of what lies behind Andrei Roublev we should turn to what Tarkovsky says about the film in his wonderful book Sculpting in Time. There we find two themes that run concurrently. The first is the film as an investigation into the nature of poetic genius, into the very act of artistic creation which of course remains universal down through the ages. Tarkovsky says: 'I wanted to investigate the nature of the poetic genius of the great Russian painter. I wanted to use the example of Roublev to explore the question of the psychology of artistic creativity, and analyze the mentality and civic awareness of an artist who created spiritual treasures of timeless significance'. Of course this means an exploration of the nature of Tarkovsky's own 'artistic creativity' and 'civic awareness' and to that extent Roublev is a surrogate figure for the film maker himself as well as for all other artists of substance and integrity. The struggles Roublev goes through, the events he witnesses and the debates he has with those around him can be said to have a very broad range of significance for all such artists. As I will try to show later the series of tableaux that make up the film's unusual structure provide key situations or events which engage repeatedly with 'the psychology of artistic creativity' and amount to a profound statement from Tarkovsky's inner creative heart and soul.
The second theme of the film constitutes a metaphysical statement on the birth of modern Russia. Tarkovsky comments: 'Trained in the monastery of the Trinity and St. Sergius under Sergey Radomezhsky, Andrei, untouched by life has assimilated the basic axiom: love, community, brotherhood. At that time of civil strife and fratricidal fighting, and with the country trampled underfoot by the Tartars, Sergey's motto, inspired by reality, and by his own political percipience, summarized the need for unity, for centralization, in the face of the Mongol-Tartar yoke, as the only way to ensure survival and achieve national and religious dignity and independence'. Put more simply 'the film was to show how the national yearning for brotherhood, at a time of vicious internecine fighting and the Tartar yoke, gave birth to Roublev's inspired 'Trinity' - epitomizing the ideal of brotherhood, love and quiet sanctity. Such was the philosophical basis of the screenplay'. Andrei Roublev was Russia's greatest artist and the 'Trinity' was his greatest work. Tarkovsky's film shows how Roublev came to paint this masterpiece.
Beyond these two main themes we must appreciate that Roublev and his fellow artists were monks living and working mainly in monasteries and cathedrals and that for Russians an 'icon' isn't merely a religious painting, but the very presence of God himself. In this way the film posits the idea that religion and culture are inseparable. Mark Le Fanu in his study The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky acutely observes: 'The wise Pushkin spoke...of 'reigning religion' as 'the unfailing source of poetry in all peoples'. At its deepest level Tarkovsky agrees with that. Culture and religion belong to each other, indeed are each other. It is the single most daring proposition in Andrei Roublev'.
It says a lot for the film's hypnotic power - Vadim Yusov's superb Breughel-inflected scope b/w photography, Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov's subtle well deployed music, the committed acting of the principals (especially Anatoly Solonitsyn as Roublev), and Tarkovsky's spectacularly innovative sense of mise-en-scène - that many people are happy to admire without needing an explanation of what they are seeing. You can bathe in the film's gorgeous potion of exotic Eastern mysticism and come out saying, "I've had a religious experience". One reason the film can work on this superficial level is that not much is known about Andrei Roublev's real life and surroundings. Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky were consequently left free to approach the 'spirit' of the circumstances that led up to the creation of the 'Trinity' rather than having to expound a complicated plot with facts written in stone which everyone would be expecting to see translated to the screen. Not having to relate specifics of Roublev's life Tarkovsky relegates the character of Roublev to the role of a Christ-like spectator who observes 8 key situations which obliquely chart his journey from the Trinity monastery where he first learns about life as a theory, through real life where his ideals are tested, lost and finally re-found with renewed vigor. Tarkovsky: 'As Hermann Hesse says in The Glass Bead Game, 'truth has to be lived, not taught. Prepare for battle!'...Underlying the concept of Andrei Roublev's character is the schema of a return to the beginning; I hope this emerges in the film as the natural and organic progression of the 'free' flow of life created on the screen. For us the story of Roublev is really the story of a 'taught', or imposed concept, which burns up in the atmosphere of a living reality to arise again from the ashes as a fresh and newly-discovered truth'. Looked at objectively this is the journey any true artist has to undertake. He learns his trade at school, but real art can only be created out of real life experiences - ' Traditional truths remain truths only when they are vindicated by personal experience...My years as a student, when I was preparing to enter the profession in which evidently I am destined to remain for the rest of my days, seem pretty strange'. Tarkovsky succeeds in depicting this journey of artistic discovery, but by keeping Roublev largely a spectator to events as they happen, he also carries out the second theme of charting the birth of modern Russia as well. Let's take a closer look:
PROLOGUE: Tarkovsky starts his long epic with a simple declaration of the main theme - man's need for artistic creation as expressed through a desire to fly. A peasant man rows across a river to a church where a large very primitive hot air balloon is waiting for him to ride up into the sky. He climbs the bell tower and jumps out of the window onto ropes dangling from the balloon. The balloon sets off and the man is indeed flying. The journey takes him over the countryside until eventually the balloon starts to deflate and the man is brought to earth with a bump. There are several things we should note here. First is the theme of flight or levitation, a Tarkovsky motif which pervades all his films. Remember Ivan's Childhood also began with a character levitating over nature. Then there are the 4 natural elements which are ever-present - water (the river), fire (the furnace producing the gas to fill the balloon with 'hot' air), air (the wind that carries the balloon) and earth (the start and finish of the man's journey). Here Tarkovsky makes the connection between artistic creativity and nature - one cannot exist without the other. Note also the horse standing at the base of the bell tower and another horse rolling on its back directly after the man's return to earth. I think it's clear the horse is connected with nature and is the mirror in which man's behavior (both good and bad) is reflected throughout the film. The most famous horse scene happens in Episode 6: The Raid where a horse falls from a rampart and is speared to death. We feel the evil of the conflict that surrounds it, just as we feel the joy of a man's flight at the end of this prologue. Note also the film's epilogue closes on the image of horses standing in a meadow. Coming after a stunning montage of Roublev's icons in spectacular color this return to the b/w world of horses again suggests that artistic creativity and nature are totally reliant on each other. Another point we should mention is that this sequence is inspired by the Icarus legend which is synonymous with man's over-ambition. The original script had the man jump with wings - the idea of the balloon came later. Over-ambition is perhaps a key note for Tarkovsky/Konchalovsky's outrageous aims embodied by this film. But then, art which is not overly ambitious is not art at all...
EPISODE 1: THE BUFFOON (1400): Three monks walk across the countryside. They are later identified as Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), Daniil the Black (Nikolai Grinko) and Andrei Roublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn). They have just left Trinity monastery and are taking their first steps into the real world as artists for hire. A rainstorm forces them to take shelter in a barn where a buffoon is entertaining his fellow peasants with outrageous singing and dancing. Apparently much of the significance of what passes here has eluded the translator in the English subtitles, but we understand enough to know the buffoon ridicules the monks. The affonted Kirill leaves the place in silence. Later officers employed by the landowner come to arrest the buffoon. We will hear in Episode 8: The Bell that Kirill has informed on the man who is sent to prison. We learn several things here - that insulting a monk is a blasphemous crime, that monks are disconnected from the people they are supposed to serve, that Christian belief and what most people believe in (most likely paganism) demarcates a yawning social divide, that Kirill represents religion practiced in its most un-Christian and draconian fashion, that monks must assume greater humility and learn how to take a joke, and finally that Roublev merely sits and watches injustice meted out by his 'brother'. He may not know it yet, but the chasm between the people and the Church and man's injustice to man depicted in this episode will be exactly what he will later try to counter with his final creation of the 'Trinity'.
EPISODE 2: THEOPHANES THE GREEK (1405): In the next three episodes Tarkovsky focuses on the nature of artistic creativity by differentiating between the three monks we have already been introduced to as well as introducing a fourth notion of artistic creation through the character of Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev). Despite the title, this episode focuses on Kirill who represents the untalented artist who is too jealous, materialistic and egotistical ever to make the grade in his vocation. He enters a church to look for Theophanes. Theophanes was in real life the greatest icon painter in Russia before Roublev and is said to have been his teacher. A Byzantine artist born in Constantinople he had peregrinated up into Russia and at the time he meets Kirill here he is looking for another artist to help paint the Annunciation Church in Moscow. He asks Kirill about Andrei Roublev, but Kirill puts down his colleague and ingeniously offers his own services instead with the condition that Theophanes must come to the Andronnikov Monastery himself and ask for Kirill in front of his colleagues. The second part of this episode takes place at the monastery. Retainers of the Grand Duke come to demand Roublev (not Kirill) come to Moscow with Theophanes. Roublev accepts to the dismay of his two colleagues. Daniil professes to a flash of jealousy but listens to Roublev's confession and tearfully wishes him well. Kirill on the other hand feels himself insulted and storms away. His jealousy, egotism and materialism found out, he damns himself for being talentless. Stressing again that artistic creativity is a natural and `good' thing which shouldn't be sullied by evil, Tarkovsky has Kirill club his dog to death in a scene of great brutality. This contrasts with the deep humility shown by Roublev in the previous scenes where he accepts his job with extreme diplomacy and shows great sympathy for Daniil. Clearly for Tarkovsky a great artist must show love, humility and charity even if ambition can't be ignored.
EPISODE 3: THE PASSION ACCORDING TO ANDREI (1406): Roublev's Christ-like humility, self-effacement and possession of genuine love for others lie at the heart of this episode. Roublev and his helper Foma are walking through the woods where they happen across Theophanes sitting on a tree trunk his legs covered in ants. It is unclear if Theophanes is alive or if this is his ghost (as Le Fanu suggests), but the two enter into a conversation about the nature of artistic creativity which is very important - possibly the very crux of the meaning of the whole film. Clearly Theophanes is a genuine artist who has had a long career and has influenced a great many others, Roublev included. However, the conversation here reveals his conviction that art is not designed to make the world a better place for people to live in. For him art cannot ennoble man at all. Rather, it is the job of art to reflect the evil world and remind people of their inescapable destiny as incorrigible sinners. His idea of painting Christ's Passion is not to picture a man dying for the sins of all of us so that we may all live again and essay good God-fearing lives. Rather his Passion is an illustration of what evil man does to each other. If Jesus Christ were to come back to earth he would be crucified again. Man never learns his lesson and art exists to remind him of that fact. Roublev counters this with his own vision which is depicted on screen as he speaks in a stunning, lovingly depicted recreation much influenced by Breughel of his idea of a Russian Passion taking place in the snow. The scene is imbued with all the tenderness and compassion of an artist who genuinely puts himself at the service of both man and God. This is the perfection of artistic creation Tarkovsky aspires to and which he sees depicted in Roublev's great icons. This whole sequence is one of the most beautiful of any in Tarkovsky's films and speaks volumes about the humanity of the man's vision.
EPISODE 4: THE CELEBRATION (1408): Possibly because the previous episode pictures the very essence of beauty at the center of a Christian worldview, this episode focuses on the diametric opposite - the 'beauty' of a pagan worldview. The conflict between Christianity and paganism was the dichotomy which Russia must overcome if she was to be born as a united country and it's important that Tarkovsky both acknowledges this and includes it as one of Roublev's life lessons which will feed into his future creation of his 'Trinity'. Roublev, Daniil, Foma and others are in a boat en-route to paint the cathedral in Vladimir. They camp at a riverside where they find themselves witness to a pagan celebration of love. Naked bodies erupt from the trees, copulate on the ground, giving themselves to nature. Curious, Roublev observes a woman jumping over a fire inside a hut (a pagan ritual to purify the home) and is arrested and tied up by men who catch him spying. Left alone with the woman, he watches her strip naked and experiences probably his first kiss. At last she agrees to let him go and after a narrative ellipse he finds his way back to his party the following morning. As they continue on their boat an argument breaks out on the bank and a woman (possibly the same woman who seduced Roublev) escapes and swims across the river. She passes the boat, but its occupants ignore her. This sequence is obviously as enigmatic for the characters as it is for us in the audience. Clearly the purpose is to show Roublev accumulating more life experiences which will come in useful later when he crystallizes his artistic worldview more completely. As said, the contrasts between the pagan ritual and the Passion that precedes it is crucial for depicting the extremes involved in the society that surrounded Roublev and which his art would eventually reflect.
EPISODE 5: THE LAST JUDGMENT (1408): Here Tarkovsky deals with the subject of artist's block and explains Daniil's view on artistic creation which is contrasted to its disadvantage with Roublev's. The group from the previous episode have arrived at Vladimir where they have been commissioned to paint The Last Judgment. Roublev wants to paint a `happy' Last Judgment to give people hope. This contrasts with Daniil's view that the purpose of painting this subject is to terrify people and make them feel the wrath of God. This represents the `conformist' view of artistic creation. Why should an artist part with custom? He should simply do as expected. Roublev is torn between duty to precedent and duty to the people, but simply can't find the inspiration to follow through his ambition. This is explained in a somewhat obscure flashback to a time when Roublev was employed by the Grand Duke's brother. Stonemasons refuse to compromise their position on the decoration of a palace and leave for a better position - to paint for the Grand Duke himself. The brother lets them go, but later has their eyes gouged out so they will not be able to paint better for his brother. This announces the fratricidal conflict which will take center stage in the next episode. The cut from a stonemason bleeding milk into a stream to black paint being splashed angrily onto the wall of the church terminates the flashback and strongly suggests Roublev's artistic impulse is being snuffed out by the appalling social conditions which surround him. It is a test which he finally passes thanks to the arrival of a Holy Fool (Irma Rausch) who enters the church with her head uncovered. Daniil once again shows his conformist conservatism by frowning at this `sin', but Roublev interprets it as a sign that he should flout tradition and feel free to express what he wants. The Holy Fool releases Roublev's creative spirit and Part 1 of the film ends.
EPISODE 6: THE RAID (1408): By far the most dramatic of the episodes, Roublev is pushed very firmly to the side (we lose sight of him for a full 10 minutes) as Tarkovsky depicts the dark chaos of the times as the brother of the grand Duke introduced in the previous episode forms an alliance with a Tartar chief on the great Russian steppes before mounting a raid on the city of Vladimir. Tarkovsky's epic vision is shown at its very finest here as a city is sacked - buildings are burnt, women are raped and many lives are lost. The survivors of the raid gather in the cathedral and wait terrified as the Tartars go about breaking down the door. The hoards eventually enter and chaos descends. We find Roublev cowering in fright. The Holy Fool is taken away and is about to be raped when Roublev leaps to her defence. He axes her assailant to death and goes into immediate shock. He confesses his sin to an imaginary Theophanes which leads to him giving up his artistic vocation and taking a vow of silence. This whole episode is marked by the breathtaking way Tarkovsky shoots the action. The camera is moved with consummate skill with every shot centrally composed with frantic activity spilling over from all areas of the frame. Great contrast is made between `innocent' nature (horses, dogs, hens, doves) and 'sinful' mankind. Two shots in particular stand out - a horse falling from a rampart to be speared to death and an aerial shot of the crowd fighting below in slow motion as two doves are released from camera right. This is also the episode where Tarkovsky the cineaste appears. The raid on Vladimir has its counterpart in the raid on Kazan in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible while the men, horses and dogs pouring over the plain towards Vladimir is strongly redolent of a similar scene in Part 2 of Lang's Die Nibelungen. Then there are the many echoes of Kurosawa, most obviously the death of Foma in slow motion which recalls an early scene in Seven Samurai. Freed of the need to relate the artistic debates and theological discourses of the other episodes, Tarkovsky here simply depicts the horrific reality of the turmoil splitting the would-be Russian nation in two. For now, the sheer horror of the violence paralyses Roublev, but it's a vitally important part of the education process preparing him ultimately for the creation of the 'Trinity'.
EPISODE 7: THE SILENCE (1412): This part shows the aftermath of the Tartar invasion and depicts the years of famine and plague which descend on the land. Roublev carries out his vow of silence living in the Andronnikov monastery accompanied by the Holy Fool. Two events take place. In one the Holy Fool is whisked away by a Tartar warlord. In the other Kirill appears after a long absense. He attempts to console Roublev for his loss. Roublev stays silent throughout. This episode is surely meant by Tarkovsky to allow the shock of the previous violent episode to reverberate as long and painfully as he can, to depict the suffering of the Russian people brought down by the abuse of power, and to provide time wherein we can prepare ourselves for Roublev's explosion back to life in the film's final episode.
EPISODE 8: THE BELL (1423): The beauty of this magnificent concluding episode lies in its simplicity. A boy Boriska (Nikolai Burlyaev) has lost his family to the plague. Agents of the Grand Duke come looking for his father who had been a famous bell maker. To save his own life Boriska claims his father passed on to him the secret of how to make bronze before he died and persuades the men to take him to Vladimir where he directs the making of a new bell. Roublev silently observes him as he goes about his work. Lovingly depicted by Tarkovsky we are awed by the process of bell construction until the day the bell is rung for the first time at which point all rejoice and Roublev is inspired to once again take up his vocation as an artist. There are many points to bring out in this miraculous sequence. First we have to appreciate the role of bells within the Russian Orthodox Church. Known as 'singing icons' they fulfill the same purpose as painted icons. They represent the very presence on earth of God Himself and the resulting spreading of the teaching of the gospels. Tarkovsky shows how the whole of society is united together by the casting of the bell, in other words by making God visable to the people through creative artistic endeavor. Boriska and his workers may be artisans but they employ peasant laborers who help at every stage. Once the bell is hung (a magnificently shot sequence showing long lines of men and women pulling on ropes) the Grand Duke and other members of his class come out to inspect the blessing of the bell and to hear the first ring. The ringing sends the assembled crowd into euphoria and as the royal entourage (replete with foreign guests from Italy) withdraws everyone bows to them in respect. The appearance of God through the bell has united the people together as one - this is the 'Trinity' of love, community and brotherhood that Tarkovsky talks about as depicted in Roublev's most celebrated icon.
Beyond the theme of the creation of modern Russia, of course the whole episode deals with the nature of artistic creation and unites elements that we have been observing for the past 2 hours. Boriska is an artist just like Roublev who goes about creating his icon in a way that literally demonstrates to Roublev how he can break his vow of silence and embrace his artistic calling once again. Note again Tarkovsky stresses how the bell is created out of the 4 natural elements. It is the heavy rain (water) which causes Boriska to slip down a hill and discover the clay (the earth) needed to make the mold in which the bell can be cast. The Grand Duke's bronze is melted (fire) and poured into the mold. The metal hardens by the cooling air into which the bell must be hoisted once the mold is broken. For the penultimate time Tarkovsky demonstrates how artistic creativity and nature are inter-dependent - without one the other cannot exist. Beyond the elements there is the way Boriska directs his workers, pushing them, scolding them, threatening them. He demonstrates to the on-looking Roublev how art is created through teamwork and inspired leadership. This is also of course the process by which Tarkovsky (or indeed any great artist) achieves his work. Tarkovsky adds a sense of circular completion as represented by the 'Trinity' by reintroducing characters from earlier in the film. The buffoon reappears to spot Kirill, the one that caused all his troubles. He seems to arrive at a kind of reconciliation. Kirill himself repents by admitting his faults from long ago and by urging Roublev to paint again. Most significantly of all at the sound of the first ring of the bell Tarkovsky cuts to the Holy Fool (on a horse!) who had abandoned him for a Tartar warlord in the last episode. She is wearing pure white and has a spiritual countenance (she may well be an apparition). In Russia the simple fool is considered to be 'touched by God' and just as her appearance in The Last Judgment brings about the epiphany that breaks Roublev's artist's block, so here her appearance inspires Roublev to unblock himself for the second time. The episode finishes on a tearful Boriska scrabbling in the mud confessing that he had lied about knowing the secret of the bronze in order to save his own life. Roublev gathers him up, promising to take him to Moscow where they will create the 'Trinity' together. Clearly for Tarkovsky artistic creativity is a giant leap into the unknown. Only an act of blind faith can result in the making of a masterpiece. Cue the change from b/w to the color of the epilogue to demonstrate what blind faith can achieve. As the images burn into our eyes and Ovchinnikov's Shostakovich-inflected score sears our ears the attentive audience has no option but be moved to tears here. And yet art does not exist purely for the glory of God. It exists for the glory of man as well and the final image of this extraordinarily moving film is a b/w image of horses standing in a meadow while the rain pours down - artistic creativity and nature forever bound to each other.
This is a review of the excellent first Artificial Eye release. The images are well defined and the sound clear. There are also some interesting extras - interviews with Tarkovsky and other members of the crew. It spreads to 2 DVDs which is not a problem as the two parts of the film take up a disc a piece and the break is natural. The only reservation I have is this is the foreign 185 minute version of the film which omits 20 minutes from the full Russian version. Tarkovsky was happy to release this shorter version, but I think the cut scenes (mainly the eye-gouging of Episode 5 and the horse-spearing of Episode 6) probably lessen the visceral thrill of the film. Animal rights activists might protest, but this is a film which relies much on its raw and unfettered depiction of Medieval times. Any attempt to minimize the shock value must surely be to the detriment of the film. It's good that the full 205 minute Russian version can be found on Criterion (the original print apparently came from Martin Scorsese's collection), but I have read that version has been blown up for wide screen and that this AE version is therefore probably the best. Whichever version you choose this is a glorious film which should be in every collection. It is quite simply one of the best films ever made.