Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Notes on Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev


• Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev (1968), set in medieval Russia of the 1400s, tells the story of a famous icon painter while subtly addressing the role of the artist in society. The prologue of the film depicts a man being chased by a mob in half a dozen boats. He lands his own boat, runs up a hill, climbs the tower of a church and, bizarrely, harnesses himself into a rudimentary hot air balloon that looks as if it has been assembled out of large leather bladders. He then takes off, hanging under the balloon, and escapes. He is thrilled and excited to be flying above the landscape but soon comes crashing down to his death. This Icarus figure (the fact that he uses a balloon and not wings is absurdly humorous) has no narrative connection to the rest of the film but sets the theme – the artist might take flight and escape the mundane world at times but, in the end, he and his works will always be brought down to earth. But, as Tarkovsky mentions elsewhere, “art would be useless if the world were perfect,” adding that for the artist to venture forth is more important than ultimate success or failure. As Canadian poet Don McKay writes in his poem, ‘Icarus’: “Icarus isn’t sorry.” Icarus fails in the end but the artist must attempt to fly.

• Scenes in The Bell section of the film, in which a multitude of characters are constructing a huge bell for a church, are reminiscent of certain paintings by the Breugels, Elder and Younger – distant views of landscapes crawling with workers, priests, animals and nobility on splendid horses.

• An earlier chapter of the film shows a small group of people (seven or eight) in the medium distance in an empty church. They are depicted at various distances from the viewer, all facing the camera. The tableaux and choreography here echo certain scenes in Fellini’s films, particularly the final scene of Satyricon, in which the patricians sit facing the camera, chewing away on the corpse of their wealthy friend.

• A film with a fragmented narrative, such as Andrei Rublev, suggests, perhaps even demands, a fragmented essay.

• The film is also a homage to horses. Horses gallop everywhere through it, much like the automobile would be ubiquitous in a fifties film about New York City. The Tatars, shown invading Russia at that time, ride extremely lively horses throughout, some kicking out their back legs in exuberance as they gallop about the town they have attacked. Near the beginning, Tarkovsky shows a horse rolling about on its back in seeming delight; another scene (in The Raid section) depicts a horse trying to negotiate its way down a flight of outdoor steps and falling over the side railing, landing upside down. The horse is immediately speared in the breast by a Tatar soldier.

• The film is filled with striking images, some of them horrific, some humorous: a cow rushes madly about a peasant woman’s house, its back in flames; a jester flips upside down, pulls down his pants and reveals a face painted on his bare ass; an artisan has his eyes gouged out; another man is tortured by Tatars by having hot metal from a melted down crucifix poured in his mouth. Later, cool relief is provided by the camera dwelling on an extended close-up of the wind tossing leaves on a tree.

• Rain, like milk, is another image repeated in many Tarkovsky films. The short final scene of Andrei Rublev – a frieze of four horses on an island in the medium distance standing in the rain – is one of the most beautiful in film. The horses are calm, flicking their tails or nodding their heads. Thus, this film, about art and artists, ends on a note of transcendent beauty.