I venture into Russian cinema in the blog with a mixture of awe and trepidation, for as fascinating it was watching whatever little I have so far on good ol’ Channel 4, and more recently on DVD, I have to admit that I hold only a rudimentary understanding about its people, culture, complex history, and therefore cinema. For very obvious reasons we in this cosy island (and probably across the pond too) tend to see Russia only through twentieth century eyes, which I suppose is about as objective as blind men describing an elephant.
Since my introduction to Russian cinema began with the great Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrey Tarkovskiy) – Solaris being my first Russian film experience, and also since his work is the one I’m most acquainted with (which isn’t many in any case), I shall start writing about Russian cinema using the same director, from one of his most acclaimed classics, “Andrey Rublyov” [DVD Title: The Passion of Andrei].
Loosely based on the life of fifteenth century muralist and iconographer Andrey Rublyov aka Andrei Rublev, the film is more about the historical events of the time that could have affected the painter-monk and his work, both at a physical and metaphysical level. Neatly divided into seven chapters, each save the epilogue depicts an influential episode in Rublyov’s life and spiritual journey. We follow Rublyov from his youth at a monastery to his apprenticeship with Theophanes the Greek, their frequent disagreements, Rublyov’s encounter with pagans, his own confrontation with Byzantine beliefs, his sense of guilt, and his unexpected enlightenment through the son of a bell-maker – my favourite chapter in the film. All these events take place against the backdrop of Tatar invasions against the Rus, which would eventually set-forth in motion the birth pangs of a Tsarist Russia.
The epic film takes its time fleshing out a plethora of characters that mark the landscape for Rublyov’s thoughts, and his art. Through the three hours and twenty five minutes (Criterion DVD), we experience breathtaking imagery ranging from the positively enchanting, to the outright brutal. We see the magic in the dew on shivering leaves of a tree, we see a happy horse rolling in the meadow, and we see twilight pagan gaiety in mist-shrouded woods by a river, made from the primary ingredients of Tarkovsky’s cinematic palette – wind, water, fire, and light. We also see marauding horsemen take down an entire town, desecrate churches, slit throats, burn cattle, rape women, slay horses, and pour molten metal from crucifixes through a tied-down priest’s throat. We also experience the exhilaration of triumph against odds, of the humble teaching the learned, and of a new beginning amidst the chaos. Most of the scenes we see are shot through a series of intricately orchestrated long takes. There are numerous instances of political and religious symbolisms exquisitely woven into the film narrative. This is Andrei Tarkovsky not only gatecrashing into the auteur club of the Antonioni’s, Bergman’s, Kurosawa’s, and Wajda’s, but also laying siege to the grandiose castle of the Cecil B DeMille’s and David Lean’s. To summarise, for anyone who loves film, this is a visual feast of the very highest order, and therefore Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The thirstyrabbit rave that you may gladly skip:
Scroll through the IMDB comments and you’ll come across more than a few who consider “Andrei Rublev” to be the greatest motion picture ever made. I cannot possibly make that claim, perhaps having seen a few more films than many of them. But then again, this is as subjective as the blind men analogy used above – what touches someone profoundly may fail to move the person next to him – that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Many great directors, including Ingmar Bergman have paid glowing tributes to Tarkovsky’s work, so there is nothing more I could possibly add to glorify his undoubted genius. But if you ask me which DVD I will instinctively pick from my shelf for an absorbing evening of cinema, it will not be a Tarkovsky, certainly not Andrei Rublev! Ironic, because the reason for my decision will have been the film’s very virtue – its pursuit of total perfection. Now ordinary mortals can strive for perfection, the most they’re likely to achieve is an improvement to what they would otherwise. It’s an extra pat on the back, “good job, ol’ boy” – the perks, there’s certainly no harm in that. But the more closer they get to ‘perfection’, the further they’ll recede from their ‘humanity’. Tarkovsky in my eyes personifies cinematic perfection more closely than any director I’m aware of, and that is scary, because total ‘perfection’ is essentially egotistical and ultimately dangerous. I for one, would much rather watch ‘imperfect’ films – warts and all, as long as their intentions are genuine..!
About the DVD:
There are numerous versions of this relentlessly butchered film, ranging from 2hr 25mts to 3hr 25mts. Mine is the director’s cut Criterion release, which is the longest presently available. But there’s also a recently remastered blu-ray release that comes close at 3hr 3mts (from which this compilation was made). The quality in the blu-ray is significantly superior in all ways to my letterboxed NTSC Criterion DVD, but I hate the cuts in the blu-ray which make parts of the film incoherent. They cut out some gruesomely realistic scenes involving animals, and a few seconds of male and female nudity, but they importantly also broke Tarkovsky’s narrative in places, which is terrible. Besides, the Criterion release also includes a commentary in English that some may find handy. I’d therefore, at least for now, recommend the longer Criterion NTSC version.
There’s a chapter titled “The Feast” that deals with Andrey Rublyov’s encounter with a group of naked pagans celebrating their festival of love. One of the prime characters in the episode is Marfa, a medieval equivalent of a hippy who questions a fascinated but uptight Rublyov about the meaning of ‘love’. There’s an obvious parable between these two characters and the Biblical Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Rublyov is also symbolically ‘crucified’ during the scene, and the following morning, Marfa evades capture by Christian soldiers by jumping into the river. Marfa is played by Nelly Snegina.