Friday, March 16, 2012

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrey Rublyov, USSR, 205 minutes
Director: Andrey Tarkovskiy
Writers: Andrey Konchalovskiy, Andrey Tarkovskiy
Photography: Vadim Yusov
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
Editors: Lyudmila Feiginova, Olga Shevkunenko, Tatyana Yegorychyova
Cast: Anatoli Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev, Irma Raush, Nikolai Burlyayev, Yuri Nazarov

A friend of mine tends to be deeply suspicious of biopics for their rote recitations of all too familiar events and the distorting constrictions they impose: too much focus on one person, too many compressions to turn an entire lifetime into a two-hour narrative, too much temptation for hagiography, and too much reliance on the performance of a single player to make them work (and the performances, such as Meryl Streep's recent turn in The Iron Lady, often have the further hazard of feeling more like stunts and/or extended impressions).

It occurred to me that Andrei Rublev could well be the exception. Technically, it's a biopic, but it finds any number of ways to break the mold, starting with its imposing size, well north of three hours. The current Criterion DVD bears the "director's cut," which is about as long as Seven Samurai or The Godfather: Part II—requiring a commitment and your best iron butt. For many years after its release it played in a version closer to 180 minutes, after cuts were made by director and writer Andrei Tarkovsky based on requirements of Soviet censors (although Tarkovsky later defended the shorter versions, which he also personally endorsed, particularly a 186-minute cut). So, yes, folks, in short, it's another case of a widely hailed critical masterpiece of world cinema that comes with its own competing versions to sort through (after finding).

And, as with Children of Paradise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, or The Rules of the Game, it also has a troubled production/distribution history, which in this case was mostly caused by the Soviet government of the time, mired in the depths of the Cold War in the '60s and '70s. For many years tracking down and seeing Andrei Rublev was no easy matter.

To be clear about it, it's also not entirely an easy matter to sit through it either—it's long, ponderous, slow, shot in a dreary silvery black and white with a print still marred by various flaws even in the Criterion edition. Stark examples of human cruelty roil up the placid surfaces again and again. Andrei Rublev (played almost invisibly by Anatoli Solonitsyn) is indeed a historical figure of some significance, a 15th-century Russian artist considered to be among the greatest medieval painters of Russian Orthodox icons and frescoes, if not the greatest. Yet he is almost a minor character here, at best just quietly frustrated or relegated to the role of silent witness on the sidelines and other times simply missing in action.

Andrei Rublev is not a simple movie, so one hesitates to fit it out with simplistic perspectives, but in many ways it dwells on the paradox of how the beauties of human endeavor spring so fluidly from the tragedies and abasements of human experience—Rublev, if not Tarkovsky, would be likely to characterize this as "grace." The overall tone is harsh and severe. The great bulk of the movie is in black and white. But the last 15 minutes are in a brilliant, vivid color that dwells lovingly on Rublev's surviving work, even as the reverberations and shocks and exhaustion from all of the foregoing still plays and echoes on loops inside our heads. The movie is full of extraordinary sequences.

Tarkovsky (and, presumably, DP Vadim Yusov) possessed an astonishing ability to conceive scenes visually. It goes well beyond composing artful pictures and into the realm of a ferociously intuitive cinema, unlike anything I know of that came before (much, a good deal, of course, has come since, viz., Bela Tarr). For every frame that could well be colorized and transferred directly to canvas there are whole sequences, even single long takes, intricately designed to unfold within a context of panoplies of levels of action.

The camera is extremely fluid, constantly on the move and probing; a shrewd use of crane shots enables it to periodically climb to the skies and add ironic and effective god's-eye views of the action. The sound follows the visuals. One remarkable long take (of many) opens on a close-up of invading soldiers tracking down a terrified village woman with the clear intent of raping her and then the camera begins to pan slowly, and the close-up becomes a medium-wide shot and then, slowly, as the scene with the soldiers and woman disappears from view, a landscape vista with lines of soldiers on horses moving slowly across it, and then, coming into the foreground, horrific images of livestock afire, and then, finally, the camera comes to rest on a medium distant view of the village church under siege, with a dozen soldiers at the barred door pounding at it in steady rhythm with a battering ram. The people inside are singing and wailing.

Andrei Rublev seethes with all its extremes. Its opening prologue, a 15th-century ride in a hot-air balloon from the point of view of the ballooner (recalling a similar opening sequence in ), sketches sublime imagery and an almost exalted moment with deceptive ease. The grotesqueries of its torture scenes, such as pouring boiling pitch down a man's throat and tying him to the tail of a horse to be dragged through the village, likely hold their own still even among today's jaded audiences. I know there are certainly a few things here I would prefer the ability to forget—indeed, look forward to forgetting.

That is, until I happen to see them again. Because I probably will. Andrei Rublev, for all its punishing length and the extremes of existence it dwells on, remains one that I will likely be returning to. It feels like the first couple of times through in recent years have just begun to scratch the surface.

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