Writing a brief review of Tarkovsky’s immense, uncompromising, willfully difficult Andrei Rublev seems inherently unfair. This is one of the most ambitious and difficult films I have ever seen, also among the longest. When I say it’s immense, I mean it: 9 chapters over nearly 3 ½ hours, ostensibly about the Russian medieval iconographic painter of the same name. The film is really about freedom of thought and ideas in the face of oppression, as far as I can tell. But you would forgive me if I’m not 100% sure, as there is so much going on, and so much of it is not really about Rublev in any obvious way, that it’s possible for numerous interpretations.
Context is everything and here it’s no different: it’s fairly easy to read this film as an attack on Stalin, specifically, and the USSR in general, and it’s no wonder it was banned. Initially, I was skeptical of this film as a great work of art, and wondered if, due to its banning, people elevated it to greatness.
But there is nothing like this in all film, that I know of. Certainly I have never seen anything – certainly no “biopic” – that resembles this movie. Even other movies that have attempted to capture faith on screen – Bresson’s work or Dreyer’s – don’t have half the ambition of this film.
And it’s mostly successful. It’s masterfully directed. There are some all-time classic shots in this film – a number of them, which is fitting since the movie is so long. (I detect a strong Ophuls influence, though I don’t know if Tarkovsky would have been able to see any “decadent” Ophuls’ movies in the USSR.) And the way Tarkovsky uses film itself to hammer home his point in the epilogue is one of the great moments in movie history. (I won’t tell you what it is in this space. If you’re curious and don’t want to spend 3 ½ hours watching a deliberately-paced, B&W biopic of a medieval Russian painter that barely focuses on the painter, then email me, and I’ll tell you what he does. I’m sure you can find out somewhere else online, too.)
And though he doesn’t really focus much on Rublev, it’s hard to impeach the story either. It’s clear Tarkovsky, who invented most of this story about Rublev because not much is known, saw Rublev’s myth as a means of making a film about his own beliefs with subtlety – Rublev’s story is more of a vessel for a commentary on man’s inhumanity to man and freedom of thought under an oppressive regime.
The only thing I will say in criticism, is that this film is willfully difficult. Even for the ‘60s when, conceivably, European (well, Soviet) audiences could be expected to sit through long deliberately-paced B&W films, this is still a challenge. Putting the distance of a few decades in – well, if you’ve never watched any old European “art house” films, absolutely do not start with this one.