“Andrei Rublev” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky directed only seven feature films over the course of his career, but even with his second film, Andrei Rublev (aka The Passion According to Andre, 1966), his reputation was rising to epic proportions.  In fact the circumstances surrounding the production of Andrei Rublev were contributing factors to Tarkovsky’s cult-like status, since the authoritarian communist government of Soviet Russia did all it could to censor and suppress the work. 

Born in 1932, Tarkovsky studied filmmaking at the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) and began his filmmaking career during the “Krushchev Thaw” (1953-1964) period  of the Soviet Union, when censorship and suppression of expression were relaxed somewhat.  It was during this period that the script for Andrei Rublev was approved and production was begun.  But by the time the film was ready for release, the Krushchev Thaw was over and Tarkovsky’s image as an uncompromising iconoclastic [1] artist in conflict with the oppressive Russian authorities began to emerge [2].  I pass over details concerning the Russian censorship issue here, but you can find more information in Hamish Ford’s article in Senses of Cinema [3].  When a copy of the film was finally brought to the Cannes Film Festival in 1969, it won the Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique (FIPRESCI ) prize, and the film is still hailed today as a towering masterpiece by many critics [4].  Because of the Russian government’s persistent censorship activities [5], there are several extant version of the film today, but I recommend that you see the original director’s cut in Cinemascope that is 3 hours and 25 minutes in length.

Before discussing the specifics of Andrei Rublev, however, it is worth considering Tarkovsky’s characteristic mise en scene and aesthetic ideology (see, for example [6]). Like his Hungarian contemporary, Miklos Jancso, Tarkovsky constructed his films out of very long takes, which involved intricate and continuous tracking, panning, and moving crane shots in combination with carefully prescribed actor choreography. It was said that Tarkovsky typically would spend two days planning for a single one of these shots before the actual take.  Many of these continuously moving shots are about 90 seconds in length, with some lasting as long as three minutes.  Often a single shot will start in closeup on a particular character, then track far away to cover a more distant scene of many people, and finally close in on that same original actor as he moves into an entirely new location.  Tarkovsky’s moving crane shots were particularly dramatic, because they could have the somewhat unnerving effect of transporting the viewer into entirely new “worlds” (contexts), all in the same shot.  As a consequence the viewer is sometimes cast into multiple subjective focalizations within the course of that single continuous shot.  All of this gave Tarkovsky’s visual presentation a narrative feeling that was unique to his style.

In addition, Tarkovsky felt that color films were too pronouncedly (and therefore artificially) colorful and thus made the viewer too conscious of color.  This was perhaps true in the 1960s, when the contrast range of color motion-picture film was quite limited compared to black-and-white film.  In any case, Tarkovsky felt that our normal consciousness is less explicitly aware of color and therefore more like monochrome film [6].

Overall, Tarkovsky’s unique focus on the visual reflected his view (and mine, too) that film is a unique medium of expression that goes far beyond what can be presented by the textual [6]. He often presented stark images that might be considered to be visual metaphors, but which evoked ambiguous feelings that went beyond straightforward articulation. Such images included riderless horses, heavy rainstorms in natural settings, and high aerial shots over waterways.  Tarkovsky had contempt for films that could be summarized in words and were merely illustrated presentations of a written script.  For Tarkovsky, the film script is merely a tool that is used during the production of something that is beyond textual description.  I believe this is the case for the film Andrei Rublev, which should be borne in mind in connection with my discussion here.

The story of Andrei Rublev concerns a renowned 15th century painter, Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 - 1430), who is still celebrated for his painted icons associated with the prevailing Russian Orthodox Christian church. Not much is known about Rublev’s life, so most of the scenes concerning Rublev are presumably fabricated. However, one feels that the overall milieu depicted in the film is probably authentic. 

Now since the film depicts scenes from the life of an artist, one is likely to assume that the major theme must concern artistic expression. But in fact there are larger issues involved, and it is difficult to pin down just what are the specific themes considered (as Tarkovsky presumably intended).  For one thing, the painting of Orthodox icons is different from typical Western painting.  Russian Orthodox Christian iconography was not supposed to be a vehicle for reflecting creative genius [7].  Instead its top practitioners were supposed to be skilled craftsmen who restricted themselves within the boundaries of a well-defined discipline. Icons were supposed to be devoid of passionate individuality and to reflect the timeless truths, as embodied by angels and holy figures, that underlie the holy scriptures of the faith.  We should view Rublev in this light. 

Those various issues that Tarkovsky took up in Andrei Rublev are presented in seven thematically and historically disconnected segments that range over a 23-year period, preceded by an ambiguous prologue and capped at the end with an epilogue.  The prologue and seven narrative sequences are all in black-and-white, while the epilogue (which shows details of Ruble’s painted icons) is in color.  Although the film is ostensibly about Andrei Rublev, in much of what is shown he is only an observer in the background. 

In the following I will discuss various aspects of those narrative elements, with respect to which I will offer my own reactions; but given the film’s somewhat ambiguous presentation, you may have quite different responses. If you would like a more detailed presentation of the specific events in the film, you may like to consult the following references: [8,9].

Prologue  (7 minutes)
The opening sequence shows a man named Yelfim fleeing an angry, destructive crowd.  He just manages to fly away in a make-shift hot-air balloon and soars above the unruly circumstances on the ground.  Although he is giddy with his airborne experience, it all comes down to a disastrous finish.  We are left to reflect on the frailty of human ambition.

The Jester (1400) (12 minutes)
Three monks – Kirill, Daniil Chorny, and Andrei Rublev – are shown departing from their monastery on foot and headed for Moscow, which they haven’t seen for some ten years or so.  These three monks will be shown through much of the film, and they have different characters.
  • Kirill is intellectual and judgmental, but not particularly skilled or intuitive.
  • Daniil is a skilled professional, but self-centered and ambitious.
  • Andre Rublev is skilled and is a resolute perceiver; he struggles to see the larger meaning of things.
They run into a heavy rainstorm and seek shelter at an inn, where an impudent jester is entertaining the people there with a performance mocking the Boyar aristocracy.  Kirill makes the contemptuous remark to his mates that “God sent priests, but the Devil sent jesters.”

There is a spectacular 70-second 360-degree pan in the inn, starting with the three monks in-frame, and ending with just two of them in-frame – Kirill is missing.  We will later learn that he has gone outside to denounce the jester to the authorities, which will lead to the jester’s arrest, torture, and a 10-year prison sentence.

The theme of this segment seems to concern the authorities’ (Boyars, governors, the Church) dismissal of freedom of expression.

Theophanes the Greek (1405-06) (34 minutes)
Kirill comes upon Theophanes the Greek, a famous Orthodox icon painter (a real historical figure) and discusses art with him.  In their discussion Kirill dismisses his colleague, Andrei Rublev, as lacking creative genius.  There is a 3-minute shot in this sequence, mostly tracking Kirill in closeup, of him contemplating the Holy Scriptures (in voiceover).  Theophanes is impressed with Kirill’s intellect and says he will invite him to be his apprentice, but he later invites Rublev instead.  In jealous frustration that he was passed over, Kirill angrily resigns from the Andronnikov Monastery, telling them all that they are hypocrites. His bad-tempered departure from the monastery is shown in another 3-minute tracking shot that begins in medium closeup and gradually pulls back, distancing the viewer from both Kirill and the monks and emphasizing their separation.

Later when Theophanes and Rublev are together, they discuss the meaning of art, and this is shown in a 160-second shot that tracks the moving discussants in closeup. In their conversation, Theophanes, who is not a monk, dismisses man as hopelessly sinful and that he, himself, doesn't work for man, but only for art’s sake. On the other side, Rublev expresses more faith in man's worth.

This section’s theme seems to concern whether religion and art are devoted to God’s perfection or man’s imperfection.

The Holiday (Spring 1408) (17 minutes)

Rublev and his assistant Foma are journeying to do painting at the Cathedral of the Assumption when they come upon a pagan festival in the forest.  The pagan practitioners are mostly naked and free-love adherents, and Rublev cannot resist spying on them.  He is soon captured by the pagans and has a 2-minute interaction/conversation with a naked girl who, in the face of Rublev’s stern disapproval, asserts the innocence of human love and passion.

Rublev gets away, and when he and his group later see the pagan celebrants being attacked by indignant vigilantes, they do not come to their aid.

This theme shows how worldly human love was condemned by society and the monks.

The Last Judgement (Summer 1408) (27 minutes)
Rublev and Daniil are commissioned to paint The Last Judgement for the Grand Prince of Vladimir, but they cannot agree on the design.  Rublev doesn’t want to portray the Devil and associated scenes that he feels are disgusting. 

Meanwhile some stone carvers and decorators tell the prince they have completed their contracted work, even though the prince wants some changes made.  The stone carvers and decorators leave anyway in order to take up some work for the Grand Prince’s brother (a lesser prince) in Zvenigorod.  On the road to their destination, these craftsmen are attacked by the jealous Grand Prince’s militia and they all have their eyes brutally gouged out so that they cannot make anything for the brother that would compete for the Grand Prince’s existing building.

Rublev is horrified when he hears about this.  In the midst of his anguish, a simple-minded peasant girl arrives on the scene, and she takes on the metaphorical role of the Holy Fool for the rest of the film.  She is uncovered, which was not considered appropriate for women in that setting.  While she walks around and gawks at  Rublev’s work environment, in a 160-second shot, there is a background recitation from the Christian Bible, of Paul the Apostle's epistle, 1 Corinthians, 11, verses 1-15:

  1. Imitate me just as I also imitate Christ. 
  2. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the ordinances as I have delivered them to you.
  3. But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
  4. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered dishonoreth his head.
  5. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonereth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
  6. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
  7. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 
  8. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
  9. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
  10. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
  11. Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
  12. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
  13. Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 
  14. Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 
  15. But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
I quote this passage to remind the reader that the Christian scriptures contain behavioral adjurations concerning women that are both primitive and prejudiced; but the mainstream elements of that  religion have discarded such backward thinking towards women.  Hopefully mainstreams of other world religions will follow a similar path to more enlightened attitudes and behavioral norms towards women.

At the end of this segment, Rublev sees the light and tells Daniil that the girl (the Holy Fool) is not a sinner even though she does not wear a scarf.

The Raid (Autumn 2008) (33 minutes)
This segment covers a Tatar raid on the Grand Prince in Vladimir that is sponsored by his jealous brother from Zvenigorod.  It features a brilliant succession of long-take action shots covering the bloody combat from all angles (and heights).  This is one of the most compelling segments in the film.  The Tatars are ruthless and conduct a massive slaughter.  At one point a Tatar warrior abducts the Holy Fool with the intent of raping her, but Rublev kills him with an axe.  In the end it seems that only Rublev and the Holy Fool survive.

Afterwards Rublev has an imagined conversation with the supposedly deceased Theophanes.  On this occasion they take reversed sides from their previous conversation concerning the inherent worth of humanity.  Rublev also tells him that he has sinned by killing a man and that he will withdraw from society and never paint again. He has lost faith in himself and in mankind. It seems that this conversation actually reflects a mental battle going on inside Rublev’s head, with Theophanes now taking up the optimistic side and asserting that, despite the meaningless Tatar slaughter, mankind is still worthy of one’s lifelong efforts.

So the theme of this segment is that one should follow the holy truths despite disasters.

The Charity (Winter 1412) (17 minutes)
We are back at the Andronnikov Monastery, and an extended famine has devastated Russia. Andre is there, along with the Holy Fool, and he has been observing a vow of silence since he killed the Tatar four years earlier. Then the long-absent Kirill arrives in a starved and destitute  state. He begs for readmission to the monastery, and is only allowed to stay if he is willing to carry out the harsh penance of copying all the holy scriptures fifteen times.

Some Tatars pass through, and despite Rublev’s remonstrations, seduce the Holy Fool into becoming one of their wives and running off with them.  Kirill finally happens onto Rublev and assures the still-silent artist that the Holy Fool’s innocence will protect her from being harmed by the Tatars.

The more selfishly analyticall Kirill has now come to a more positive attitude than the originally more feeling-oriented Rublev. 

The Bell (Spring 1423 - Spring 1424) (47 minutes)
Now years later, it is the plague that is devastating Russia. The Grand Prince wants to have a huge bell cast for his cathedral, but it seems that the plague has wiped out most of the bell-casting masters, and one of the only surviving bell-casters is a teenage boy, Boriska. So the boy is contracted to supervise the large construction project of building the furnace that will be used to cast the enormous bell. In the background, the now-elderly Rublev is a silent observer to the proceedings. This segment, like the earlier Raid segment, is satisfying because it has its own more easily followed narrative direction.  Again there are numerous tracking and craning shots that cover the multifarious construction activities.  These include an amazing sequence of 80- to 100-second shots that move from Boriska closeups over to more distant images of bell-making activity and then back to Boriska in a new place.

Given the various disasters already viewed, it seems likely that Boriska’s ambitious efforts will end in failure.  But in the end the huge bell is successfully produced and tolled.  Kirill, the Holy Fool, and even the jester show up in this sequence.

I got the feeling that the bell casting effort was a metaphor for how Tarkovsky conceived film production and that he identified himself with Boriska. Boriska is so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the effort that it seems to have gone beyond his control. When the construction efforts turn out to have been successful, he cannot believe it and confesses that he had oversold his own abilities. In the end Rublev approaches the exhausted and overwhelmed Boriska and finally breaks his 15-year silence.  He tells the boy to believe in the value of his own efforts.  He should continue to cast bells, and Rublev vows to return to painting icons.

Epilogue (9 minutes)
The last segment shows a sequence of existing Rublev icon images in color, with a bombastic choral background.  Most of the images are details of icons, rather than full views, and the camera roves over these images at considerable (perhaps excessive) length.

You may draw your own conclusions as to the ultimate themes of Andrei Rublev. But I would say that it is not so much about artistic creation but more about how man can be guided by God’s message. The Orthodox icon is supposed to provide a signpost of God and make one aware of God’s presence on earth. It is that final sequence in the film, concerning the Bell, that signals how, even in the face of all the perfidy around us, our supposedly menial efforts can still make a contribution that is larger and more meaningful than we might suppose.

  1. I use the word advisedly, since Andrei Rublev was an icon creator.
  2. Hamish Ford, “Andrei Rublev”, Senses of Cinema, December 2009.
  3. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andre Rublev, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (1 November 2005).
  4. Murtaza Ali Khan, Andrei Rublev: Russian Auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s Treatise on Creative Freedom and Spirituality”, A Potpouuri of Vestiges, (22 May 2012).
  5. There are allegations that Tarkovsky was murdered by the Russian KGB by having him contaminated with cancer-causing elements, see  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Tarkovsky.  This kind of assassination of cultural figures to suppress free expression is not without precedents for the KGB; consider Georgi Markov: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgi_Markov. 
  6. Maria Chugunova,"On Cinema – Interview with Tarkovsky", To the Screen,  (December 1966).
  7. Cindy Egly, “Eastern Orthodox Christians and Iconography”, Antiochan   Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (accessed 7 September 2015).
  8. Patrick Louis Cooney, “Andrei Rublev (1969)”, Historical Movies (Historical Films) in Chronological Order”,  (accessed 7 September 2015).
  9. “Andrei Rublev (film)”, Wikipedia, (28 August 2015).

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