****/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras A-
starring Anatoly Solonitsin, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev
screenplay by Andrei Konchalovsky (as Andron Mikhalkov), Andrei Tarkovsky
directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
by Bryant Frazer Despite the fact that little is known about the man's life, Andrei Rublev is considered one of the greatest Russian painters of orthodox Christian icons. Only a single work has been attributed entirely to Rublev with certainty, but it's a doozy, subtly reconfiguring an earlier, more pedestrian icon drawn from the Book of Genesis into a visually sophisticated meditation on the Holy Trinity. Though this work is generally dated to 1411, Rublev's elevation to master status is a 20th-century phenomenon. After a 1918 restoration revealed Rublev's Trinity to be more brightly coloured and delicately imagined than previously thought--which some experts interpreted as a departure from Byzantine influences in the direction of a more specifically Russian sensibility--Rublev's reputation soared. The Russian Orthodox theologian Pavel Florensky famously put it this way: "There exists the icon of the Trinity by Saint Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists."
On a more secular note, Rublev was among the artists listed in Lenin's 1918 "On Monumental Propaganda" edict directing the preservation of works important to Russian nationalism. It's no wonder that, some years later, Rublev caught the attention of director Andrei Tarkovsky and his co-screenwriter, Andrei Konchalovsky. For Tarkovsky, the existence of a great artist in a biographical void represented an opportunity to fictionalize the development of a great creative sensibility. It also gave him a practical advantage with Soviet authorities. Though they were wary of the script's religious overtones, it was hard for them to resist the argument being made for Russian exceptionalism. Tarkovsky himself didn't seem to be primarily concerned with questions of faith; instead, he said he was drawn to dramatize Rublev's "ability...to convey moral ideas to his people." At any rate, the screenplay was eventually published in Russian film magazine ISKUSSTVO KINO, earning Tarkovsky a greenlight from Mosfilm Studio and Soviet filmmaking authorities.
More than two years later, the ambiguously-titled 206-minute opus The Passion According to Andrei screened once in Moscow. According to an essay by J. Hoberman published with the Criterion Collection's 1999 DVD release of that version of the film, state censors rejected it as "too negative, too harsh, too experimental, too frightening, too filled with nudity, and too politically complicated to be released--especially on the eve of the Russian Revolution's fiftieth anniversary." Tarkovsky cut roughly 20 minutes from the film over the next two years before a version running approximately three hours--and retitled Andrei Rublev, a title more suggestive of a straightforward biopic--played at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Russian audiences saw that cut of the film in 1971, but a print that screened at the New York Film Festival in 1973 ran just 146 minutes, according to the NEW YORK TIMES. Vincent Canby panned it at the time but qualified his negative stance: "I hedge my comments in the knowledge that I've not seen the film that Tarkovsky made." He revisited it on the 1992 reissue, which restored some 40 minutes of footage, and declared it "soaring and majestic." The film's reputation has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, and what was once thought of as a difficult film now looks remarkably accessible. Although Tarkovsky was an early flag-bearer of the Slow Cinema movement and the film's running time may suggest an endurance test, Andrei Rublev is anything but ascetic. Remember that Tarkovsky was a young man with something to prove. His cast of thousands enacted scenes of mind-boggling violence, imaginative iterations of cruelty, and fleshy displays of sex appeal. It's as sensational as any Cecil B. DeMille epic. Think less The Virgin Spring and more "Game of Thrones".
Through Rublev's travels and career, Tarkovsky crafts a mosaic of medieval Russia that depicts the antagonistic relationship between artists and the country's rulers, the bitter fighting between rival princes, and the stubborn persistence of paganism despite the forceful encroachment of Christianity. In one segment, we see Andrei as a humble country monastery monk seeking work with fellow artists Daniil (Nikolai Gringko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov); in another, we learn how he became an acolyte of the master Byzantine painter Theophanes the Greek, thus enraging the jealous Kirill. Later, we see him wrestle with his latest commission: Consulting with Daniil, he wonders if his rendering of The Last Judgement need be as grotesque and threatening as it is usually imagined. Indeed, the murals that Rublev eventually painted in the Assumption Cathedral of Vladimir constituted a more benevolent picture of the Judgment than 15th-century Russians were accustomed to, emphasizing love and mercy over fear and torture.
Too little is known of the real Andrei Rublev's life to shed much more light on his sensibility. Instead, Tarkovsky imagines events that may have informed an artist's temperament. In an early episode, Andrei, Daniil, and Kirill seek shelter from a thunderstorm in a barn where a local jester is performing a ribald and subversive routine for an assembly of locals. Before the three leave, soldiers arrive and lead the comedian away as a prisoner. (It's strongly implied that Kirill is responsible for alerting the authorities.) A stark indication of the adversarial relationship between artists and the state, it helps establish what's at stake for Andrei. Later, as he journeys with a small group on a river, Andrei notices some midsummer holiday celebrants cavorting in the forest. He looks back over his shoulder towards the camera and says, "They're pagans!" before following them into the woods. I always laugh at this--the combination of astonishment and wonder that crosses Solonitsyn's face is comically innocent, (Just a bit later, Andrei's robes actually catch on fire as he spies on the nude revellers from a distance, the closest Tarkovsky will ever get to a Tex Avery va-va-voom moment.) He lingers in the woods all night. The scene closes with a slow zoom on a nude woman fixing him with a seductive gaze. Indeed, when he rejoins his party in the morning, his friends seem suspicious, resentful, and maybe a little jealous of his experience among the sinners.
While Tarkovsky shies from an explicit depiction of sex, his presentation of war is spectacular, harrowing, and unsparing. The film's centrepiece depicts an opportunistic invasion of Vladimir by an ambitious prince in alliance with a band of Tatars. Tarkovsky's camera consumes the action in relatively long takes, panning and tilting this way and that to establish the scope of the scene before picking out choice moments of violence and cruelty. Shots where Tarkovsky's camera races alongside charging horses are logistically impressive, and their propulsive motion draws us into the dynamics of the attack. In one especially horrifying moment, a horse breaks a leg and collapses down a flight of stairs on screen. The footage is truncated in Andrei Rublev: Tarkovsky's original cut features more of the horse's misery, not to mention footage of a cow set aflame. (The latter is said to have been filmed with protection for the animal in place, but I'm skeptical that it helped much; after the late director Kira Muratova saw that footage, she said in an interview, "Tarkovsky for me ceased to exist.") The images are unforgettable and off-putting, perhaps especially to contemporary viewers. I have a hard time excusing it, though the horse was allegedly slaughterhouse-bound anyway, and I imagine many worse things happen to animals every day in the name of meat. The tension builds as the army hammers at the doors of the cathedral, where the villagers have amassed, while the Tatars wait, grinning, outside. This, too, is discomfiting; I recognize Hollywood's long-standing racist portrayals of Native Americans reflected in Tarkovsky's depictions of the Tatars as bloodthirsty savages among the more civilized Russian soldiers. The cultural distance between the two factions is, however, the source of some humour, as the Russian Prince's attempts to describe Christian dogma elicit gentle mockery from the bemused Tatar emir. Meanwhile, Andrei's journey as an artist and a man reaches a kind of climax inside the church when he kills one of the attacking soldiers to save a woman from rape and likely murder. The entire experience sours Andrei on art--and, perhaps, God, too.
In the brilliant penultimate segment of the film, Andrei fades almost entirely into the background as Tarkovsky considers the work of a teenage boy, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who talked his way into a royal commission to cast an enormous bronze church bell. Tarkovsky depicts the oversized project in all its mad glory, as Boriska chooses a distant site for the bell pit, complains about the quality of the local clay, and commandeers massive quantities of silver from the city. When questioned, he reminds anyone who will listen that his father taught him "the secret of bell-casting" before falling to the plague. "Tell the prince not to be miserly!" he commands, in a rush of brashness and arrogance. And then, still giddy from the sight of the raging fire erected to forge the massive instrument, he starts giggling: "Imagine if, after this, it doesn't ring!" All the while, he's warily eyeing the skies because once the first snow comes, it will be impossible to fire the bell. Andrei lurks on the sidelines, watching the boy hold strong, learn to assert his authority rather than clinging to his father's reputation, and eventually wrestle the project to completion. What seems at first like a puzzling diversion from Andrei's story is revealed to be the final element of his education as an artist. So impressed is he by Boriska's accomplishment, by the enormous tones ringing out over the Russian landscape and bringing joy to the people, that Andrei rushes to comfort the boy after he collapses of exhaustion, weeping: "You'll cast bells, I'll paint icons." As good as the rest of Andrei Rublev is, this masterful chapter, in its multifarious celebration of confidence, egotism, perspiration, and blind faith (at least in one's self, if not in one's god), establishes its greatness.
As a Soviet filmmaker, Tarkovsky worked in the shadow of Eisenstein, but his shooting style doesn't seem to be especially influenced by Eisensteinian montage. Instead, there's a meditativeness to his mise-en-scène that perhaps draws on the fluid camerawork of Murnau and Dreyer, balanced by a kineticism that may come from Kurosawa. (Kurosawa says that Tarkovsky once told him he always watched Seven Samurai before embarking on a new film; Kurosawa later wrote that he always screened Andrei Rublev before shooting a project.) The most obvious reference point may be the medieval films of Ingmar Bergman, although Tarkovsky's use of the widescreen frame, with carefully designed and deliberately executed tracking shots, reminds me specifically of Alain Renais's work together with cinematographer Sacha Vierny on Last Year at Marienbad. Whatever influences came to bear on Andrei Rublev, it remains an exemplary mix of classic filmmaking styles, combining both arthouse and Hollywood epic conventions to bracing effect. Though Tarkovsky's later work may be more distinctive and assured, there's a headlong rawness to Rublev that's endlessly appealing. It's one of those films where you feel the presence of the director as creator, shaping raw material into character, story, and thesis with script and camera. And there is some irony in the fact that even though Andrei Rublev is ostensibly a biopic of a master of religious imagery, its spiritual dimension may be a red herring. Andrei is depicted as a not-necessarily-holy man, less a saint and more a humanist at large, ultimately drawn to art for earthly reasons. The film supposes the artistic impulse is less important as a statement of faith or an aspiration to the divine than as an expression of empathy--of artists' enduring desire to elevate and exalt human experience through beauty, humour, and terror.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's version of Andrei Rublev runs just over 183 minutes. Per the liner notes, the new Blu-ray is sourced from a 35mm internegative scanned at HD resolution (I assume this means 2K, since this version received a theatrical release, but the notes specify high-definition) and digitally restored by Mosfilm, with additional work on the image performed at Criterion. The results are impressive. Scenes taking place in Russian forests have dazzling amounts of detail in tree bark and branches, like painstakingly rendered pencil drawings or etchings. Dynamic range has obviously been carefully considered. Highlights hold all their detail and black levels are consistent from shot to shot, though overall contrast is mostly calibrated to emphasize shades of grey; expressionistic shadows and stark chiaroscuros are not present here. Clarifying the picture without muddying it, grain is fine but abundant and has a mostly organic feel with limited artifacts, despite a somewhat scanty video bitrate (just over 21 Mbps). The audio was taken from a "soundtrack negative" and restored by Criterion to apparently good effect. The 48kHz/24-bit monaural PCM sound isn't especially impressive technically, but it's clean with little noise and no distortion, and the actual mix is robust. In the tight, brutish clamour of the film's battle scenes, it really means business--hordes of soldiers ride in on horseback, their dialogue ringing out loud and clear over the top of the thunderous roar of hoofbeats in the dirt.
The director is on record calling that 183-minute version "the best, the most successful, the most beautiful" incarnation of the film. (You might, too, if you were trying to stay in the good graces of the regime that ordered you to make the cuts.) The longer cut is naturally of interest to viewers who want to see what the Soviet government found objectionable, and Criterion has included The Passion According to Andrei here, on its own disc, in a version running 206 minutes. (205 minutes is the oft-cited running time.) The differences between the two versions of the film are numerous. Mainly, the longer cut seems to have been edited to remove moments of violence (among them bits of the abovementioned scenes involving animals) and nudity as well as a sexual reference: when Andrei stands near the fire during the pagan festival, the voices of two lovers off-screen can be heard only in the longer version of the film (one of them complains that they are on top of an anthill!). In certain places, the longer cut even employs different takes, though the differences are generally subtle. And there are jarring edits to a couple of Tarkovsky's signature shots that appear to have been made solely to remove snippets of objectionable material. The Passion According to Andrei is sourced from a print (with burned-in English subtitles) owned by Martin Scorsese, and the transfer reflects the limitations of that print. It's higher in contrast and much darker and "dupey-er," meaning many details are lost in the shadows or burned away in the highlights, while foreground figures and objects often exhibit fuzzy halos. Dust, dirt, scratches, and other imperfections are continuously visible in the image. I no longer have the Criterion DVD to compare it to, but the HD upgrade, at least, almost certainly represents a big improvement. Call it an adequate presentation of an arguably more definitive version of the film. Tarkovsky fans are, alas, faced with an impossible choice between a longer print and a much more beautiful one.
The rest of the supplements, all in native HD, are packed onto the first disc. They include The Steamroller and the Violin (45 mins.), Tarkovsky's thesis film from the State Institute of Cinematography, which he made at Mosfilm in 1960 from a script co-written with fellow student Konchalovsky. In it, a boy learning to play the violin befriends a steamroller operator. After the man defends the boy from bullies, they wander around Moscow together. The film contains some lyrical imagery, including a stunning use of mirrored pictures to create fragmented, kaleidoscopic imagery in the frame. It's in slightly rough shape, with dust visible on the negative, but features brilliant, saturated colours and lots of dynamic range.
A 1966 documentary short directed by Dina Musatova and commissioned for Russian television, "The Three Andreis" (19 mins.) finds three different perspectives on the film's making. First, it shows actor Anatoly Solenitsyn just sort of hanging out at Andronikov Monastery, a national monument celebrating its status as the long-ago home of Andrei Rublev, while discussing his role in the film in voiceover. Next, we see vintage footage of Tarkovsky himself in the cutting room and elsewhere, and hear him speaking a bit about his intentions. He seems lost in thought here, ruminative and insecure. "Everyone says the biggest challenge is making your second film," he muses, unhappily. The third Andrei is, of course, Andrei Konchalovsky, who is interviewed on the set of his second film, The Story of Asya-Khromonozhka, Who Loved But Did Not Marry Because She Was Too Proud. ("You know how Russian fairy tales have long names," he says.) Oddly, Konchalovsky doesn't discuss Andrei Rublev--or mention Tarkovsky at all--and the piece ends abruptly.
"On the Set of Andrei Rublev" (5 mins.) is a short collection of silent colour footage captured on location as Tarkovsky directs the raid on Vladimir, with its complex tracking shots and scores of extras. "Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev: A Journey" (29 mins.), directed by Louise Milne and Seán Martin, features interviews with actor Nikolai Burlyaev (Boriska), cinematographer Vadim Yusov, Tarkovsky's assistant Olga Surkova, film critic Dmitri Salynsky, and Vida T. Johnson, author of The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Amusingly, Salynsky identifies Tarkovsky as "one of the top dandies in Moscow," remarking on not just his fashion sense but also his rock-star status during the post-Stalin Mosfilm production boom of the early 1960s. "I fell in love with him at first sight," Burlyaev says. But the most penetrating insight comes from Surkova, who was on hand during the filming as a student working on her field-work project. She does what she can to separate Andrei Rublev from its reputation as a kind of religious film, explaining that the appreciation of icon painting "didn't have religious undertones" among the Russian intelligentsia of the 1960s. "Andrei made this picture about the relations between the artist and society," she insists. She also throws Konchalovsky under the bus, declaring that he had "no understanding" of what kind of film Tarkovsky was making. The interviews additionally cover the film's reception, with Salynsky explaining how Tarkovsky's heart sank when he heard that even his beloved Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had come out against Andrei Rublev. Some of Tarkovsky's own thoughts are heard in voiceover, as narrators read passages from his book Sculpting in Time.
Robert Bird, author of the 2004 BFI monograph on the film, gets a solid 37 minutes to talk about Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, and Andrei Rublev. He explains how Andrei Rublev, despite being a bit of an enigma historically, became something like "the Russian Leonardo, a humanist and a philosopher." And he pegs the Tarkovsky of the time as "a brash young man, not well-read religiously." Identifying Solzhenitsyn's specific beef with the film as a complaint that Tarkovsky's Rublev doesn't behave much like a holy man, Bird describes him as "this most secular of monks." Considering the question of whether the 206-minute version of the film should be considered the "director's cut," Bird suggests that Tarkovsky likely included some of the more extreme footage in that cut because he knew the authorities would demand he excise it, and also because he hoped those more sensational aspects might distract from his unconventional narrative structure. While he says Tarkovsky was probably happy to make at least some of the cuts that were demanded, he also points out ways that the film suffered narratively when certain sequences were reconfigured within the film's shorter running time. A full-length audio commentary may have been even better, but Bird's presentation is a deep dive into the film and the lore around it, and it's highly recommended.
"Inventing Andrei Rublev" (13 mins.) is a "video essay" by frequent Criterion collaborator Daniel Raim that sets clips from Rublev, Ivan's Childhood, and Stalker to a voiceover by critic Justin Chang, who slowly reads aloud passages of Tarkovsky's words taken from Sculpting in Time and Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews as well as from interviews originally published in AMERICAN FILM and POSITIF. Unfortunately, sources for each specific quotation are not provided on screen. I'm not sure who prefers spending 13 minutes watching a video to simply reading a well-cited assembly of the relevant text passages spread over, say, a couple of pages of a Blu-ray booklet, but this feature is definitely for them.
Held over from 1999 DVD is a "selected-scene commentary" (50 mins.) by Harvard Film Archive co-founder Vlada Petrić. I griped about this audio-only extra back in the day, mainly because it seemed like a poor substitute for a feature-length track, but I liked it better this time, especially since it serves up close critical analysis of Tarkovsky's directorial style that fits in nicely among the other extras, which mostly provide political, social, and historical context for the work. Petrić tackles seven different sequences drawn from six of the film's segments (because this feature was created for the earlier DVD, the 206-minute cut of the film is referenced), and discusses Tarkovsky's use of first-person POVs, his penchant for using windows and doors to create frames within frames, his general disinterest in montage, and more. Still, there's a little less here than meets the eye; for some reason, this feature continues playing for a solid seven minutes after Petrić's narration ends, meaning there are fewer than 43 minutes of actual commentary.
This exhaustive and illuminating edition of Andrei Rublev comes in a slipcase boasting a handsome illustration that gives Andrei (Rublev) himself a reflective gold halo. Slipped inside the case along with the two-disc digipack is a foldout poster, roughly 12x18 inches, with alternate cover art printed on one face. J. Hoberman's essay "An Icon Emerges" (another survivor from the original DVD release) shares the B side with an excerpt from a Tarkovsky essay published in SOVIET SCREEN magazine in 1962, plus the usual set of Criterion liner notes.
Andrei Rublev: 183 minutes, The Passion According to Andrei: 206 minutes; NR; 2.35:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); Russian LPCM 1.0, English subtitles (burned-in on The Passion According to Andrei); BD-50 + BD-50; Region A; Criterion