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Andrei Rublev: Before the Tsars

Andrei Tarkovsky’s wildly ambitious second film was shown in a cinema in 1966. The audience seemed to like it, but the Soviet censors refused to approve the epic for a wider release. Simply put, its message wasn’t political enough, in the right way, to satisfy the dictatorship. Tarkovsky wouldn’t cut scenes from the film. Three years later, the authorities agreed to have Andrei Rublev shown at the Cannes festival out of competition, and couldn’t prevent the film from being sold to other countries.

In 1971 it was finally distributed in the Soviet Union as well. Tarkovsky knew it was a hit; he couldn’t see any posters for the film anywhere, but every theater was sold out.

Divided into eight chapters
The film is divided into eight chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue, beginning in 1400 and ending 24 years later. It is the story of a wandering monk, Andrei Rublev (Anatoli Solonitsyn), who leaves a monastery for Moscow together with two fellow monks, Daniil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov). Over the years, they encounter a famous icon painter, Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev), who causes a split among the monks, and begin work on a church in Vladimir. That city becomes a scene of carnage, as the brother of the region’s grand prince forms an alliance with Tatars and attacks, causing a bloodbath…

Not a traditional biography
After his breakthrough with Ivan’s Childhood (1962), Tarkovsky wanted his next film to be about Andrei Rublev – not a traditional biography but a movie that connected this creative master, his talent and personality, with his times. Tarkovsky wanted to show the world the history of Russian culture – but the bureaucrats of the dictatorship were too narrow-minded to understand the value of the film.

It is primarily about devoting yourself fully to your art, risking everything in the process. The prologue shows a man attempting a hot-air balloon ride, succeeding for a while before crash-landing. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, soldiers attack a group of artists who were working for Rublev, gouging out their eyes as punishment for leaving their current work. In the last episode before the epilogue, we meet a teenager (Nikolai Burlyayev, who played the titular character in Ivan’s Childhood) who bullshits his way into an assignment where he’s to lead a huge project casting a bronze bell. He begins in ignorance, but becomes devoted to the task, ready to sacrifice anything to get that bell made. In the end, he meets the aging Rublev who’s been living in his old monastery for years, observing a vow of silence, making him realize the true value of art.

There is tremendous suffering throughout the film, on an epic scale, obvious in the attack on Vladimir, which is impressively staged, especially since Tarkovsky had a much smaller budget than Sergei Bondarchuk who was making War and Peace at the same time. Together with cinematographer Vadim Yusov, the director crafts several memorable sequences, including a wintry Passion Play; a subsequent pagan ritual in the woods has a haunting quality.

As a portrait of Rublev’s life, Tarkovsky offers something free from historical restraints, rewarding to anyone looking for philosophical thoughts on religion, life in Russia before the rise of the tsars in the 1500s and the oppressive conditions an artist must accept in a totalitarian system. The epilogue is stunning in all its simplicity, offering some of Rublev’s most famous icons in color, the camera studying their most fascinating details, all to the tune of Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s stirring music. 

Andrei Rublev 1966-Soviet Union. 185 min. B/W-Color. Widescreen. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Screenplay: Andrei Konchalovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky. Cinematography: Vadim Yusov. Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov. Cast: Anatoli Solonitsyn (Andrei Rublev), Ivan Lapikov (Kirill), Nikolai Grinko (Daniil Chyorny), Nikolai Sergeyev, Nikolai Burlyayev, Yuri Nikulin.

Trivia: Also available in a 205 min. version. 

Last word: “‘Rublev’ is shot in very long takes, to avoid any feeling of artificial, special rhythm, in order that the rhythm should be that of life itself. In fact you can have any kind of editing: short, long, fast, slow. The length of a shot has nothing to do with being modern or not modern. In film, as in any other art form, it is a way of selecting in order to express a particular idea. Basically, editing is the way you organize the rhythm of a film. And the length of a take depends on what has to be shown: it’ll be short for a detail and long for a panorama.” (Tarkovsky, “Time Within Time: The Diaries 1970-1986”)



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