“An artist never works under ideal conditions. If they existed, his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. The artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world. This is the issue in Andrei Rublev.”
So reads the quote from Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, director and co-writer of the epic historical drama Andrei Rublev from 1966. I could honestly stop the review right here since he basically sums up what I want to talk about, but then I wouldn’t be doing my job, so the show must indeed go on. Andrei Rublev is normally a biopic about the titular Russian icon painter, however, to call it a biopic would be a big mistake. Rublev is most certainly the protagonist of the film, but Tarkovsky doesn’t set out to deconstruct or paint an accurate portrait of Rublev’s life like most biopics do, Tarkovsky and his co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky use Rublev as a form of anchoring vessel to explore questions about art, spirituality and Russia’s history during the Middle Ages. The Andrei Rublev in this film isn’t meant to be the historical Andrei Rublev, through Tarkovsky’s lense he becomes a metaphor for all artists in all time.
Right from the bat it must be said that Andrei Rublev is one of the most historically accurate depictions of the Middle Ages caught on film. So many films that take place in this period have actors who look relatively clean, with clothes that either look way too modern or like they just came out of the clothing factory. The houses, the castles, the churches, everything tends to look too clean, but not so in Andrei Rublev. In Andrei Rublev we see the mud, the rugged landscape, the clothes look worn out, and all the sets (houses and churches) look like they probably did in that period. The only other movie I can think of that presents this time period accurately in this aspect, and I’m not joking when I say this, is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These two films are the only ones I can think of that present the Middle Ages as they truly were; rugged, disgusting and overall depressing, but occasionally pretty.
This goes into Tarkovsky’s overall cinematic philosophy. The film was shot in black-and-white while the epilogue, depicting Rublev’s icon paintings, is shot in color. Tarkovsky argued that this is because in life one doesn’t consciously think about the colors that surrounds oneself, hence the decision shooting in black-and-white. Tarkovsky’s cinematic philosophy was to present life as it is, but not through cinéma vérité, but through metaphors and a poetic stylisation, to more accurately depict the way each of us experience life. And that comes through in the aspect of use of color. This is a much better case for not including color in your work than whatever the reason is for lack of color in the MCU. But art is in color, so therefore it must be presented in color. The amount of thought-provoking layers Tarkovsky put into something as simple as the color in the film is simply astounding. No wonder why he’s rightfully considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Another central question to the film, and indeed Tarkovsky’s entire body of work, is spirituality. In this case, spirituality’s relationship to art. At the beginning of the film, we see a man successfully fly a hot air balloon until it crashes and he is killed. Throughout the film, we follow Rublev as he paints and contemplates the meaning of his art. And at the end, we see a young man named Boriska successfully build a clock. But as we learn, Boriska didn’t know how to build a clock, he just did whatever he thought was the right thing to do. Did Rublev learn how to paint by going to school, or was it just something he could do well? Did the man at the beginning know how to fly? Maybe art and creativity in general is a God-given gift, and it’s up to us how we decide to use it. Maybe one must have some sort of faith, not necessarily Christian or religious faith, and be prepared to sacrifice themselves, in order to create transcendental art.
As I mentioned earlier, Tarkovsky’s depiction of Andrei Rublev isn’t necessarily the historical Andrei Rublev (although I’m sure Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky did a ton of research on him), Rublev represents something greater. Tarkovsky wants Rublev to be a symbol, or a metaphor as the master would call it (he greatly disliked symbolism since it carried a predetermined meaning), for the artistic spirit. Rublev wants to paint, but he doesn’t want to do paintings that scare or frighten people into submission, he wants to reach people. But throughout the episodic narrative of the film, we see Rublev challenged for his views and his inherent belief in the good of mankind. How can someone create art when people will kill, torture and rape each other?
Perhaps it’s because of this transcendental view on art that Andrei Rublev is potentially my favorite Tarkovsky film. It’s most certainly up there with The Mirror and Stalker for me, and they’re all some of the finest motion pictures I have ever seen. When you come from a culture that in general feels quite hostile to art and the artists, as I do, you come to appreciate Tarkovsky’s respect for the artist and their greater significance for all of us, not just historically, but also spiritually, as a species.