Andrei Tarkovsky‘s first film Andrei Rublev, like his later films, is known for his impressionistic environments inhabited by characters who exist as poetic entities. He’s also known for making movies with a long duration period. Both elements don’t make the best combination for me, but the film does have a lot of merits. Also, watch the film on the big screen if you can. The tenebrism and the close-ups look better in that format.
Nonetheless, the film for me doesn’t really start until three icon painters, Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), Danill (Nikolai Grinko), and Andrei (Anatoli Solonitsyn) set off and stop their rainy journey on a barn where a jester (Rolan Bykov) is performing for other townsfolk. His performance is physical, lively, lewd. The townsfolk repeat awatered down version of his song. Andrei stares and observes the jester like every other kid who didn’t know that staring is bad manners. He sees the man after the performance, tired but not necessarily in agony. He might even feel a camaraderie with the man, unappreciated for his talents that he exhausts himself for. Kirill steps in and says that the devil brought jesters into the world, although Andrei doesn’t show that he agrees with Kirill. The content of the jester’s song reached to some authorities, who have him arrested.
Kirill enters Theophanes the Greek‘s home. Kirill praises him and criticizes the man Theophanes has asked about – Andrei Rublyov. This is pretty much where I drool and bring up my art history background. Fifteenth century Russian icons were at the tail end on the Medieval chapter. All I knew about the era were Italians. Another impression I had of the Byzantine/Orthodox art was its rigidity, and that the image was more important. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention about the superstars of the era, which Theophanes has been and Andrei, at this part of the story, could potentially be. Anyway, Kirill’s main criticism of Andrei is that the latter didn’t seem to believe. Imparting his ‘opinion’ to the master, Kirill pleads for a public appointment to be the latter’s apprentice.
Theophanes hilariously – just to me – chooses the younger, more handsome Andrei instead, making Kirill really angry and denounces the monastery where they all live. Andrei then embarks on a second journey, the beginning of a new section in his life where he’ll see memorable sights and events along the way. These demonic moments eventually follow him through the town of Vladimir, where he’s commissioned. At least one does he take part in the lustful, violent world he only knows through theory, a Russia he hasn’t really been exposed to. He neither becomes lustful nor violent, but his experiences in this part of the plot posts the film’s real conundrum. Whether he’s passing through hell, passing through the real Russia, wondering how human beings can let a world become this degenerate and if all this exposure, participation and sympathy for evildoers makes someone a good or bad person. Tarkovsky doesn’t answer the questions more easily for us by depicting these devilish images with beauty, the long takes used to capture them letting his audience contemplate on moral dualities.
The Tatars raid Vladimir, and more than a decade later, many of the characters around Andrei have died, and those who haven’t are destroyed. The jester has little sense of humour left in him, and his bitter towards Andrei and accuses the latter of putting him in jail. He points out that Andrei has lost his looks, which isn’t Andrei’s biggest problem since Andrei has turned down work for a decade. The two are opposite a young bell maker’s son Boriska (Nikolay Burlyaev) trying to fill his father’s shoes, energizing the town in the process. Andrei observes the kid as he ha observed the jester in the past, as the audience wonders how the child’s efforts affect Andrei and his rusting talents.