Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Rublyov) (1969)

Den yderste dom
It is my understanding that icons are a big thing in the Eastern Orthodox church. Icons are special pictures of religious significance and one of the great painters of these was a man called Andrei Rublev who lived in Russia in the 15th century. This is supposedly a movie about this Andrei Rublev.

Andrei Tarkovsky is a legendary Russian director of whom I have watched… absolutely none of his movies. “Andrei Rublev” is the first. But his reputation precedes him, and I expected a movie that would be different and very philosophical. In that respect I was not disappointed. “Andrei Rublev” is not a biopic. In some, probably many, ways it is not even historically correct. Instead the character of Andrei Rublev is used as the focal point for a metaphysical and moral journey where Andrei meets with betrayal, ambition, doubt, despair, penance and restoration.

This sounds very good, but as it turned out, the movie has one fatal flaw: It was very difficult for it to hold my attention and help me understand what was going on. I would watch one of the many chapters in the movie, seemingly disconnected from the others, and have not idea what this was about. Often, I would even be in doubt which of the characters I was watching. I admit I am partly to blame, I should have approached this movie with more focus, but something about it seemed to repel my focus and draw it elsewhere. Instead I turned to Wikipedia which has an excellent synopsis of the movie and through that learned what I was actually watching.

One of the things I learned was that this movie was in fact rebelling against the Soviet system, or at least at odds with the ruling dogmas of the communists. There is the distaste for the informer who are betraying the dissidents to the police and the heavy-handed oppression of the population whenever the population does not follow the party line, but most of all the freedom of thought. Andrei Rublev cannot work in a system where the system tells him what to do. Painting is not a job, it is an art and art requires free thought.

These themes go a long way to explain why “Andrei Rublev” only achieved one screening in Russia in 1966 before it was shut down until it was rediscovered in Cannes in 1969 and only later, in a presumably edited version, released for the Russian public.

Yet, the communists must have liked the last chapter about the bell. This is a story about redemption where a young man, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev) claims to have inherited the secret of casting bronze bells and gets hired to manage the casting of a monstrous bell for the Grand Prince since there are nobody else around with that skill. The boy tries his hardest to be strong enough to lead this work, especially when he learns that all will be beheaded if it fails to ring. This project is a giant endeavor involving hundreds of people and coordination, one of those community achievements the communists were so fond of. Only when he, beyond all odds, succeeds does he collapse in the arms of Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and admits that he did not know the secret, that he was winging it all along. Andrei, who had been convinced that he is unworthy to paint and indeed to talk, takes heart from the example of Boriska and starts painting again and it is understood that he goes on to paint his best pieces.

I like the idea of what Tarkovsky was doing more than I like the result itself. The stories in the various chapter are worth less for their apparent narrative that their moral and symbolic meaning. Everything is drenched in symbolism, but unless you know what you are looking for it is difficult to see. It is a clever movie, but also a movie for making me feel stupid. I cannot parse this without help and the apparent stories are not interesting enough that I feel like watching it repeatedly to glean understanding from it. I am certain it would be rewarding, but I doubt I could do it.

As such, “Andrei Rublev” is a scholar’s movie and a valuable one at that. I am just not scholar enough to appreciate it.


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