This Soviet biographical historical drama directed by Andrei Tarkovsky is loosely based on the life of a 15th-century Russian icon painter. Set against the backdrop of Czarist rule, the film seeks to depict a realistic portrait of medieval Russia. Tarkovsky sought to create a film that shows the artist as a “world-historic figure” and Christianity as an axiom of Russia’s historical identity. The film’s themes include artistic freedom, religion, political ambiguity and the making of art under a repressive regime. Because of this, it was not released domestically in the officially atheist and authoritarian Soviet Union for years. Although these issues with censorship obscured and truncated the film for a long, long time, Andrei Rublev has come to be regarded as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time.
Andrei Rublev is divided into seven episodes, with a prologue and an epilogue only loosely related to the main film. The central narrative charts the life of a great icon painter through seven episodes which either parallel his life or represent crucial transitions he must face. The background is 15th Century Russia, a turbulent period characterized by fighting between rival princes and the Tatar invasions.
With Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky is perhaps the most influential of all Russian filmmakers. His body of work presents the struggle for survival of the Russian people in an idiosyncratic and very poetic style. Because of its intense themes and messages, the Soviet censors immediately banned screenings of the movie, deciding that it was a negative commentary on the current political situation in the Soviet Union. As a result, it wasn’t shown uncensored to Russian audiences until 1988, after Tarkovsky’s death and in the year of Rublev’s canonization.
At 205 minutes, in Russian, and in black and white, it is a difficult film to understand. Few characters are clearly identified. Little actually happens. And what does happen isn’t necessarily in chronological order. Tarkovsky was consciously crafting a language that owed nothing to literature. In today’s cinema, we’re still served up linear, cause-and-effect biographies of artists as if, by doing so, we’ll understand the person and be able to make sense of their art. Andrei Rublev operates according to a different understanding of time and history. It asks questions about the relationship between the artist, their society and their spiritual beliefs and doesn’t seek to answer them. “In cinema, it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer’s feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought,” Tarkovsky wrote in 1962.
Despite its apparent formlessness, Andrei Rublev is precisely structured and entirely aesthetically coherent. Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction, there are themes of flight, of vision, of presence and absence; the more you look, the more you see. As the camera pores over details, the tiny jewels on the hem of a robe, the lines forming a pitiful expression on the face of an angel, the tarnished gilding of a halo, we feel like we understand everything that’s gone into every brushstroke. We’re reminded of what beauty is. It is as close to,transcendence as cinema gets.