The abstract opening sequence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev reflects the mystical undercurrent that flows throughout the film: a peasant sneaks into a tower to ride aboard a primitive hot air balloon. He succeeds in briefly soaring into the atmosphere, only to crash violently into the ground. To dissect every frame of Andrei Rublev and attempt to derive specificity from its anatomy would, not only take volumes, but more importantly, be completely subjective. Filmed in stark black and white (excluding the epilogue), and using long shots and fluid tracking, Andrei Rublev is a visual and cerebral journey: a thematically adaptive interpretation of Rublev’s life, a conduit into the bleak existence of medieval Russia, a meditation on the search for the spiritual and artistic light. Contrary to what the title suggests, the film is not a biographical account of the Russian icon painter. Rublev (Anatoli Solonitsyn) is, in fact, almost a peripheral character: a chronicler of medieval life, attempting to create religious art in a harsh world devoid of inspiration and community. Tarkovsky is not interested in exalting Rublev through extreme sacrifices nor great acts of kindness. He is all too human: a monk tempted by a sensual pagan woman, an artist doubting his skills in completing a church, a Christian who commits a fundamental sin. That Rublev’s work survives today is a testament to his struggle to find beauty and inner peace in his turbulent world. It is a theme that resurfaces throughout Tarkovsky’s tragically abbreviated career: man in relation to, and as a consequence of, his environment.
Rublev’s nomadic existence is not only a physical consequence of his itinerant work, but also a symbolic representation of his spiritual wandering. Rublev seeks inner peace through the solemnity of his monastic existence, but is plagued with uncertainty. Historically, the environmental turmoil represented by the hedonistic peasants, pagan rituals, and Tatar raids serve as a metaphor for his own ambivalence and spiritual bankruptcy. Cinematically, Tarkovsky employs singular, cyclic shots that traverse exterior and interior spaces to symbolize man’s interaction with his environment. Episodically, the thematic cycle is reflected in the return of the humbled monk Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), simple minded Durochka (Irma Raush), and the imprisoned jester (Rolan Bykov) at the bell casting, supervised by a young bell founder (Nikolai Burlyayev), who, essentially, is a young Rublev. There, at the casting, the disillusioned older Rublev wanders around the formation of the bell, cursorily drawn to the process. In the end, after its successful tolling, the young founder confesses his deception to the elder monk. Then the camera slowly tracks outward, soaring overhead, like the peasant in the hot air balloon. Rublev’s passion is restored.
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