The Criterion Collection's DVD version of Andrei Rublev - the Director's Cut
Andrei Rublev opens in the year 1400 with a monk clambering to the top of a church, desperate to fly away before an angry mob can destroy his balloon. Just as his comrades are overtaken by a howling pack of peasants, the monk sails up and away. Suddenly the camera pans over the misty, swampy Russian landscape and the people who wanted to destroy the fiendish innovation look like ants. This theme of the tension between creativity, power and popular will echoes throughout the film.
In the second scene titled, "The Jester", we are introduced to icon painter Andrei Rublev (Anatoli Solonitsyn), the uncompromising monk Kiril (Ivan Lapikov) and their apprentice Danil Chorny (Nikolai Grinko). The three set out in driving rain from the Troista monastery on a journey to Moscow. When they decide to take shelter from the elements in a village hovel with several other peasants, they witness the Jester (Rolan Bykov) entertaining the crowd with acrobatic routines. The most hilarious part of the Jester's act involves mocking the nobles by painting the bare face of a nobleman on his buttocks. The song and dance implies that a shaved boyar can hardly be distinguished from a woman, and will be thrown out by his wife. Shortly after mooning the crowd, we see the Jester step out shirtless into the rain - as if he knows that his punishment is drawing near. A few hours later several men on horseback arrive. The horsemen drag the Jester out of the hut, impale him on a post, and haul his body away. As the three monks depart the village, Kiril mutters that "G-d sent priests, but the devil sent jesters."
Watch the opening scene of Andrei Rublev here.
Click on the extended post to read the full review.
Depiction of the Holy Trinity painted by the real life Andrei Rublev who lived between 1360 and 1430
In the next scene we meet another character, Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev). Theophanes wants to paint his icons in the church without being bothered by the horrors of the world outside. But as he and Kiril carry on a genteel conversation about Andrei Rublev's true faith and art, a mob is torturing a man to death outside the church. Theophanes pleads with the mob in vain, "Orthodox Christians...lovers of truth...you judge, but G-d is not with you!" Again we see the body of a victim disfigured by torture, covered and hauled away. Theophanes despairs that his apprentices have gone out to watch a ruler, perhaps a boyar who has incurred the czar's disfavor, be killed by the mob. "Worthless bastards, all of them!" Impressed by Kiril's humility and eloquence, he offers him a position as an icon painter in Moscow. Kiril rejects the offer, saying that it shows favoritism, and says he will only accept on the condition that Theophanes personally appear at the Troista monastery to invite him and Andrei Rublev to Moscow.
Andrei reading the Bible
Instead of Theophanes appearing in person, the monks are summoned by a messenger on horseback. Before he departs for Moscow, we see Andrei studying Ecclesiastes chapter 11 verse 9, "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment." Perhaps Andrei is aware that Moscow will test his faith with the temptation of pride and to seek praise from men.
The next scene features a dialogue that I found to be the most interesting in the whole three hour-long film, because it touches on the theme of whether the Russian people deserve their nasty, short and brutish existence. Theophanes presents his view that the Russian people receive the cruelty they deserve due to their own godlessness and ignorance, while Andrei reminds Theophanes that in a dark world, there is still grace:
Theophanes: The women of Moscow give their hair to the Tartars. What else can they do - other than submit to torture?
Andrei: It is the true that Russian women are humiliated and unhappy.
Theophanes: Tell me honestly, are the people ignorant or not?
Andrei: They're ignorant, but who's fault is that?
Theophanes: It's their own stupidity. Have you ever sinned through ignorance?
Andrei: Everyone has.
Theophanes: And I have too, God forgive us and make us better. Well, nevermind, the Last Judgement is coming and we'll burn like candles. Mark my words.
Andrei: Theophanes, how can you paint [icons of the church] with such ideas, even accept praise? [If I thought like you], I would have become a hermit and lived in a cave.
Theophanes: I serve God, not man. As regards to praise, what is praised today is abused tomorrow. They will forget you, me, everything. All is vanity and ashes, worse things have been forgotten. Humanity has already committed every stupidity and baseness, and now it only repeats them. Everything is an eternal circle and it repeats itself. If Jesus returned to earth, they would crucify Him again.
Andrei: Of course, but if only evil is remembered, then you will never be happy in the sight of God. Perhaps we must forget some things, but not all. You think people can only do good alone?
Theophanese: Remember the New Testament! Jesus taught people in the temples, and why did they gather there later? To kill him! "Crucify him! Crucify him!" they shouted. And the disciples? Judas sold him, Peter denied him. They all ran away, yet they were the best of the bunch!
Andrei: But they repented.
Theophanes: That was afterwards, when it was too late!
The dialogue between Theophanes and Andrei on the subject of the Russian people, the narod, and their rulers continues with Tarkovsky depicting a scene of the Crucifixion behind them. Tarkovsky expresses his love for the Russian people through Andrei.
Andrei: It's never too late to repent. Of course, people do evil, but you cannot blame them altogether. It's difficult, I think, and sinful.
Theophanes: Judas sold the Christ, and remember who bought him -- the People!
Andrei: But who accused Him? The Pharisees. But they could not find witnesses, however hard they tried. "Who will testify against this innocent?" Only later did they find the traitors.
Theophanes: Two were found immediately, two and not one.
Andrei: But there were only two, and the Pharisees were masters of deceit, educated. They had studied to gain power, and to take advantage of the People's ignorance. We must remind people that they are people, Russians of the same blood and the same land. Evil is everywhere. Someone will always sell you for 30 pieces of silver. Now misfortunes always fall on the peasant. Either the Tartars three times an autumn [steal the harvest], or famine, or plague, and yet he keeps on working, working, working, meekly bearing his cross. He does not despair, he is silent and patient. He only prays to God for enough strength. How could God not forgive him his ignorance?"
"And lead us not into temptation..." Andrei observes the pagans
Tarkovsky knows better than to leave Andrei Rublev and the audience at such a sublime point. Real life involves highs and lows, and as an artist Tarkovsky wants to show us how quickly even the most pious can get knocked off his pedestal. In the next scene, Andrei faces strong temptation as he confronts Russian pagans cavorting naked through the misty forests. Andrei manages to resist, but his life is only spared because Andrei's temptress, a peasant woman named Marfa (N. Snegina), unties his binds and allows him to escape being crucified by the pagans. Later, when Andrei rejoins his companions and meets their judging stares, we see Marfa's lover killed by the religious authorities and Marfa swimming away, naked.
Andrei on the river
Prospective film makers still study Andrei Rublev today to see a master at work. While Tarkovsky's use of lighting, fog and shadows are reminiscent of the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, Tarkovsky adds his own genius in arranging dozens of actors and extras' individual parts into a single, extended shot. The single shot scene involves the Tartars showing up to rape and loot another Russian village. Here Tarkovsky's work did not escape controversy, as several animals were killed in the course of the filming, including a horse that was shot by the crew and then impaled on screen by a Tartar warrior.
In spite of Tarkovsky's depiction of the Russian Orthodox Church and the boyars as cruel, we can see why Soviet censors cut twenty minutes from Andrei Rublev and almost banned the picture. The film is profoundly spiritual, anti-materialistic, and its heroes are all suspicious of worldly authority. After Tarkovsky completed filming in 1966, Soviet censors vacillated for five years on whether to permit the film to be shown at all. Finally, in 1971, they did allow it to be shown in the USSR. But the world did not get to see the film Tarkovsky envisioned, all 205 minutes of it, until 2004. Now thanks to Netflix and the Criterion DVD Collection, anyone can join the ranks of film students and critics in appreciating this masterpiece.
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Director Andrei Tarkovsky discusses the meaning of art, Part 2